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What Is this…Steven Ooniverse?

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I’ve just recently discovered “Steven Universe” so I reckon it’s roughly a decade old. Anyway, I have thoughts. What are yours?

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  • Pat

    All I know is that my queer teen daughter absolutely adores it.

  • Gregor Sansa

    Spoilers.

    There was a thing on Medium about how it’s racist because Pearl (who codes as White or maybe Asian) gets away with metaphorical rape but the Jasper/Amethyst fusion (two characters who both code as Black) can’t control her violent impulses.

    I thought they were valid criticisms but that it’s still a little sad that a show can actually lose points for acing the Bechdel test on both gender and race.

    • Halloween Jack

      That sounds like the sort of thing that Medium might publish as they start getting competition from other longform/essay blogs without the supply of good writers also expanding. Amethyst doesn’t necessarily code as black, but Garnet certainly does, and she’s arguably the most in-control of any of the core cast. I have no idea what “metaphorical rape” you’re talking about.

      • Gregor Sansa

        Again, spoilers.

        By “rape”, I mean “fusion under false pretenses”.

        There was more to the critique in question. Some of it made sense, but in some of it I felt the author was taking the racial roman a cle way too far.

      • GregSanders

        Gregor Sansa:
        Spoilers.

        I do know what the “metaphorical rape” is, although I wouldn’t classify it as such, although Pearl definitely did a bad thing and was called on it for some time therafter. Also I think you’re mixing up Jasper and Garnet.

        Regardless, I think the show does a good job of actually having multiple characters from a range of backgrounds. This makes it pretty easy for me to read the Garnet-Amethyst as being primarily about the relationship between those two characters and how their strengths and weaknesses as a team. It’s hard to make good art if every character has to be a stand-in for the group they are a literally or metaphorically a member of.

        I don’t think I necessarily agree with all the moral stances of the show and also, while great, it does focus on themes more relevant to children without necessarily getting into some of the adult complications. So criticism is certainly fine (even if I did agree with it). But I do think the show does a good job of treating its characters as individuals and that not doing the same leads to shallower readings.

        [Update: Based on your earlier reply, we may disagree less than I thought on that part.]

        • Gregor Sansa

          for some time therafter

          It does seem as if it is basically forgotten by now, though, in ways that other events that came earlier are not. Part of that has to do with the pace of the episodes but I think they could have handled this better without slowing down.

      • LNM_in_LA

        Medium is … interesting.

        As in, I Will Never Lie to You, where Dana tries to be Frank, and (mostly) succeeds.

        The article/essay writing on Medium can range from completely Amateur Hour to consummately professional.

        It’s one of me ‘brain explosion’ sites, like 3 Quarks Daily, where i can expect something at interesting and challenging will catch my eye. Love that joint, and 3Q, and Longform, and, and . . .

        Hmm, the First Step is admitting you are powerless . . .

        • Murc

          Medium is … interesting.

          As in, I Will Never Lie to You, where Dana tries to be Frank, and (mostly) succeeds.

          … wow.

          Dana Perino’s JOB is to lie. That’s what press flacks do. A press flack who was unwilling to lie would be fired.

    • Drexciya

      I believe this is the piece you’re referring to and unlike say…this, I think it’s mostly astute criticism that articulated some things that bugged me a little about the show.

      Edit: Spoilers abound in both pieces

      • Gregor Sansa

        Mostly, yes. But it definitely goes off the deep end about Sardonyx.

        spoilers again.

        And for me, the contrast between the show’s lazy stereotype of Sugilite and the actual characterization of Bismuth is instructive; both might seem like stereotypes from a one-sentence summary but with Bismuth I feel as if it’s real and deep. I also expect that the “bubble and forget” attitude towards Bismuth will be problematized further; it is not OK and I think the show realizes that even if the characters don’t yet.

        • GregSanders

          Spoilers again:

          While I’ve disagreed some on other point (respectfully I hope, I see where you’r coming from), I absolutely agree on Bismuth.

          I think the show is taking on something hard there and while they may screw it up, my hopes are high and there’s some clear telegraphing that something is wrong here.

          • Gregor Sansa

            spoilers.

            I think that there are a number of characters now whom Steven has hurt in some way without really trying, and I do expect the show to deal with that in a way that respects his character and theirs. (And Rose’s, who is of course always present…) Being nice to people when they’re standing in front of you isn’t enough.

            • Gregor Sansa

              Called it.

      • Murc

        Both those pieces are so massively wrong about so many things I have trouble even knowing where to begin. Especially the first one, which begins with “fuck everyone who thinks I might be wrong, I’m right and I know it, you aren’t allowed to question my premises” and goes downward from there.

        • Gregor Sansa

          The initial disclaimers are over the top, but given the minefield that the author’s about to charge into, I can forgive a bit of signalling that “you can’t troll me, I’m fucking crazy, so don’t even try.”

          • Murc

            I remember when the first one hit tumblr and facebook. What a shitstorm THAT was.

            I don’t know enough about the author to know if it was merely signalling or not. I do know that the article in question is so badly wrongheaded I don’t much care.

      • Origami Isopod

        LOL, Riley. Scam artist extraordinaire and all-around nasty piece of work.

        • Gregor Sansa

          Interesting, thanks.

        • Murc

          Oh man, that’s the same dude?

          The Arkh Project’s crash and burn was epic.

          I really need to start remembering names.

          • Origami Isopod

            Yeah.

        • Halloween Jack

          Somehow, not surprised. Before Tumblr, it was LiveJournal that tended to attract a certain sort of drama-magnet-cum-scam-artist whose reaction to any sort of criticism or even objective examination was to punch as many social justice buttons as they could reach, as hard and as fast as they could.

      • That was…overwrought. And starts with a bunch of premises I disagree with.

    • Origami Isopod

      I would avoid most internet commentary on Steven Universe.

      The fandom itself notoriously bullied a fanartist into attempting suicide because it deemed her art “problematic.”

      • Murc

        The horrifying thing isn’t so much that the Steven Universe fandom is uniquely bad… but that it isn’t.

        This sort of bullshit is endemic to anything that gains a certain amount of popularity in what I refer to as the “young nerd” demos. I could tell you stories of the terrifying stuff that’s happened to people in the FiM, Adventure Time, Avatar, etc. fandoms. Even Voltron fandom and Voltron is a fandom that’s only existed in modern form for two months!

        • Origami Isopod

          Yes, bad behavior has long been a problem in fandom (because humans). But what I find sad is that, in recent years, so much of it has been committed in the guise of “social justice.” Sometimes it can be chalked up to overzealous teenagers, but oftentimes it’s grown-ass adults doing this shit.

          I don’t have a problem with people being critiqued on specific things they’ve done wrong. For example, if Zami070 did whitewash a character, that is valid grounds for criticism. But harassment to the point of a suicide attempt isn’t “criticism.” That’s not even acceptable in the case of a known bad actor like Riley.

          • Murc

            I endorse your positions and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

  • Gregor Sansa

    The songs are in many cases legitimately great. “You do it for her/him” still gives me goosebumps right now just thinking about it.

    • GregSanders

      I really want a soundtrack CD.

    • funkula

      Oh my god, that song. That episode, really. I most recently saw it while violently ill, and my decreased overall willpower meant I actually teared up. I haven’t tested it yet, but I wonder if it would be a good teaser episode to get people into the show, with its mix of music, action, hints at the cool backstory, and all of the feels.

      However, I still think the Stronger Than You sequence is the overall pinnacle of the series, and I hope at some point they’ll ascend to that level of action choreography and musical synchronization again. Incidentally I haven’t seen any Summer of Steven stuff yet, so if it’s been equaled recently I don’t want to hear about it.

  • Kalil

    Steven Universe has utterly consumed my friends and I. It is probably our favorite show ever at this point.

    The themes of social justice and feminism are… So central as to be almost taken for granted. Despite the extraordinarily strong morality pervading the series, it’s never /preachy/, it just /is/. The world is extremely complex and mysterious, leading to long conversations theorizing about the history and mechanics and where the plot is going. And the romances are quite simply the best I’ve ever seen on television, from the giggly passion and devotion of Ruby and Sapphire to the tentative and explorative experiences of Greg and Rose as they transform their mutual crush into something deeper than either had ever experiences.

    I honestly, truly believe that if everyone watched Steven Universe, the world would be a better place. Good news is, it’s getting there. (Funny, isn’t it, how the most watched show on Cable is totally unmentioned, while every Lost or American Idol or Game of Thrones episode gets its own article on every major news channel…)

    • Gregor Sansa

      I agree.

      There is a part of me that draws back from the morality as depicted. If getting things wrong could literally destroy the planet, then I think it would not necessarily be moral to be nice to one’s opponents. But if you take the show a little bit less literally, it makes sense. In the real world, the earth doesn’t hang in the balance, but it sometimes feels as if it does; and in that case, it’s a good idea to have a deontological rule to be nice.

  • MPAVictoria

    Many people who I respect seem to like it. I wish Netflix in Canada would make it available via streaming.

  • emjb

    It’s hard to know what to say without knowing how far you are into the series (so many spoilers).

    This is a show that would have meant so much to me as a kid. Not because of queerness (though that is there, and it’s great) but for a protagonist who is powered by love/compassion instead of violence, a zillion amazing female characters, and mysterious worldbuilding, plus musical numbers. And humor. And darkness.

    I have no idea how they are going to resolve the series, and for a kid’s show, that’s pretty amazing. And it’s not like Lost where it flails around, every clue pays off in one way or another; it’s well-constructed.

    I watch it with my 10-year-old son, and it’s delightful to share with him. He’s a gentle boy too, and seeing that celebrated is so rare.

    • sharonT

      Same here.

      If time travel was a thing I’d go back to 1972 and leave the graphic novelizations of Steven Universe on my bedroom desk with a note to my 11 year old self telling me to read them all and to remember to be nicer to my little sister.

  • Halloween Jack

    Not sure how far along you are, but yes to space lesbians, and also a transgender subtext that isn’t really subtext.

  • MDEric

    Steven Universe is an incredible show. It has more complex meta plot and characterization then most high quality network dramas. It’s also probably the most progressive show on tv. The shows creator made a short but incredible speech at comic con this year that shows the thought that goes into this show (I was there for the panel, and I may have shed a tear or two)

  • keta

    But, I’ve never watched this show and care not to. I think most cartoons on Cartoon Network are violent, and not for young kids. I prefer Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Old school cartoons.

    • leftwingfox

      Talk about unaddressed biases.

    • Murc

      … most old school cartoons are just five or so minutes of nothing but violence. I mean, it is slapstick violence. Even very young children know better than to drop an anvil on someone.

      I would agree that most of what Cartoon Network shows isn’t for VERY young children, but mostly in the sense that I don’t think a four or five year old will get much out of them. They don’t seem to focus much on, say, the under-ten demo. This isn’t to say they don’t get some success there, but most of their shows these days seem to be oriented to 12 and up.

  • wjts

    What Is this…Steven Ooniverse?

    I am unfamiliar with the cartoon show (beyond learning recently that a writer/animator for the show was driven from Twitter by fans who thought she paired up the wrong characters in a relationship), but the correct pronunciation of “universe” in your title must be credited to Helen Keen and/or Peter Serafinowicz.

  • leftwingfox

    Many cartoons have had single-gender species, but rarely dealt with the implications of that; it was a construct of sexism (Boys won’t play with girl toys) rather than actual world-building.

    It’s interesting that both Steven Universe and Transformers have taken that and run with the queer implications. The IDW comic Transformers: More than Meets the Eye runs with the 80’s cartoon characters as a mono-gendered society, and includes a number of romantic relationships between those male-coded characters. Even with the addition of a long-lost colony of female-coded transformers, they haven’t forcefully normalized heterosexual relationships.

    In Steven Universe, Gems are all female, so of course any romances are going to be same-sex relationships. The fusion process is explicitly a relationship metaphor, whether those relationships are tight and permanent, temporary and tumultuous, or even involuntary and abusive.

    • funkula

      One fantastic thing is that fusion isn’t just romantic. It covers all sorts of relationships between people, and as a result the show has more to say about loving interaction than most fiction aimed at adult audiences.

      • Murc

        It covers all sorts of relationships between people, and as a result the show has more to say about loving interaction than most fiction aimed at adult audiences.

        Or un-loving interaction. You can hate-fuse. That’s completely a thing.

        • Kalil

          “Nobody I fuse with.. ever wants to stay.”
          Jeeze. Yah. It definitely tackles abusive relationships.
          …and manages to show both sides of such a relationship in a way that is.. empathatic and relatable, while not in any way exonerating bad behavior. I can understand where both components of Malachite are coming from, emotionally, and actually like them both as ‘people’, while recognizing that what they did to eachother was/is awful, and that they have a lot of problems they desperately need to work through. It’s rare that fiction features abusive characters who aren’t one-dimensional villains. In reality, abuse is most likely to come from someone you love and respect, and it’s not simple to disentangle the abusive awful from the rest. Basically, it manages to be complex and nuanced while still unambiguously showing that bad behavior is bad. One hell of a tightrope act…

          I have a friend in an emotionally abusive relationship, and that arc has really helped him piece together how to understand his own situation – that it’s okay to acknowledge that his family is toxic, even while still recognizing/respecting the familial bonds that aren’t easy or even possible to sever.

  • GregSanders

    I love it. I do think the target audience does mean that it probably won’t eventually get to some of the places i’d eventually hope it will go. However, it’s also really amazing the way that it takes so much of what would a few years ago be categorized as adult themes and include them in a kid’s show.

    I think the parts I love most about it are great and deep characters and a the extremely light science fiction setup. Crystal Gems have some simple and consistent rules about how they work. As a result, the way each character brings in the fantastical elements, either alone or with others, reveals a great deal about them while be fun in its own right.

  • junker

    If only Hulu would get the episodes faster!

  • Murc

    “I couldn’t tell if they were lesbians or not.”

    Yeah, that’s, uh… that’s going to be way, way less ambiguous as time goes on. I’m just saying.

    Steven Universe is an excellent show, one of the best things Cartoon Network has ever put out. It’s a strong contender for THE best, but even if it isn’t it is certainly up there.

    It’s basically a pretty typical “magical destiny child comes of age” story but with all the usual trappings surrounding that changed subtly. Steven is 12 when the series starts, turns 13 about a fifth of the way through season one and 14 during season 2. (Connie is about a year and a half younger than him but perpetually seems older.)

    The thing is, Steven is a roly-poly ball of happiness. There’s a certain amount of well-developed angst in his situation (I mean, his mom did literally cease to exist in order to create him and he’s sort of the focal point of an intergalactic space war) that’s central to his character but Steven isn’t into performative masculinity in the way a lot of other male protagonists in similar sorts of stories are, so he just doesn’t give a damn about that.

    His magical powers are explicitly based on his emotional state (Which annoys him sometimes) and his domestic situation is deliberately odd but not in an “acceptably odd” way. It’s really great to watch.

    One of the particular standout characters to me is his father, Greg. Greg is one of the best TV dads ever created. The standard formula for a TV dad is just to be sort of… generically daddly from a distance. They’re distant from their children, often seem to be genuinely frightened of them and view them as weird not-quite-human larvae who they don’t understand. They only emotionally engage if there’s some sort of problem or issue to be solved, and they’re visibly uncomfortable doing so.

    Greg isn’t like that. Greg is firing on all cylinders and deeply engaged in every aspect of Steven’s life. He doesn’t necessarily understand all aspects of Steven’s life but he’s engaged with them, and not grudingly or reluctantly.

    It’s also nice that he lives in his van and has a dead-end job but isn’t portrayed as a loser who can’t take care of himself or his son. You don’t have to be generically middle-class to be a Dad. The Gems sort of think he’s a loser, although that changes a bit.

    Oh man, the Gems.

    The Gems are sort of the centerpiece of the series; a lot of people care about them way more than they care about Steven and all his conflicts ultimately flow from them. The Gems are great, because they’re so messed up. Pearl hates herself. Amethyst hates herself in a completely different way. Garnet is the healthy one but Garnet is reticent.

    I could talk about it for hours, I really could.

    • Keaaukane

      Not even close to the best thing on Cartoon Network as long as Robot Chicken, Venture Brothers, and Mike Tyson mysteries live.

      • Keaaukane

        And of course, Rick and Morty.

      • Origami Isopod

        Tastes are tastes.

        Personally I don’t much like any modern TV animation.

  • Heron

    Yeah, this is a great series. It’s very much in the vein of the sort of socially conscious, internet-influenced cartoons/webcomics that have been coming out in the last decade or so? Adventure Time, Homestuck, Regular Show, stuff like that. In particular there’s this one plot line later on in the series that deals with trust, and abusive relationships, and processing them, and moving past them, and the complex emotions they can bring out in you that is just so well done and so painfully honest, and it’s just wonderful. Oh, and Steven’s, the protag’s, role in this is to be gentling encouraging the healing process all the way, which WOW, emotional literacy and competence, and sympathy being presented as heroic and masculine. Again: WOW! WOW!! I love it so much uwu

  • I like a lot of the stuff I’ve heard about it, but I also understand that it features singing, and I have yet to watch a show with regular songs where the singing didn’t eventually turn me off. I’m sure I’ll give it a try at some point.

    • Gregor Sansa

      Singing happens in about one episode in 5. It never feels forced. It’s not “my crazy ex-girlfriend”, where they thought of some mildly funny musical jokes and then strung them together with a plot; although not every song is great, some really are, and great or not every one of them is organically a part of the story in a way that would not work as well without the music.

      • OK, that’s way different that what I was hearing, which made it sound like it was in MLP territory with at least one song per episode.

        • Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

          I can confirm that the music is occasional. However, with the possible exception of ‘Drive Your Van Into My Heart’ the songs are great and are often used to propel the story.

  • Don’t know this one. I’ll have to check it out.

    It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

    • Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

      I only ran into it a few weeks ago and immediately binged my way through a hundred episodes in five or six days. It really is that good. It is full of FEELS. All of them.

      It’s worth finding an episode list and working your way through from the beginning, in order. (The broadcast order got mixed up at certain points.) Steven Universe is a masterclass in world-building, with each of the early episodes laying another brick in the edifice of canon. When that starts to pay off, around half way through the first season, it does so in fine style. I fairly wept at a number of episodes; great fat man-tears.

      It’s silly, it’s goofy, it’s bittersweet. It’s all driven from the perspective of Steven, a little boy who finds he has to grow up and slowly deal with all the secrets and half-truths and omissions of the grown-ups. And it touches on some dark stuff in the backstory. People have done bad things, and they are not completely over it, nor have they atoned.

      • Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

        It’s also worth mentioning that the show does a lot of unexpected things. It doesn’t follow the beats of regular cartoon storytelling. When you think it’s about to get serious it turns goofy, or will go off on a tangent. For example, a confrontation that looks like it will escalate into the mother of all beat-downs suddenly turns into a baseball match! It’s nuts! An episode that looks like it’s going to be about *this* turns out to be about another thing entirely. And it’s beautiful when it does that.

        It’s not a neat show. Not everything gets wrapped up and resolved. Damaged characters stay damaged. Problems don’t go away but hang over the characters, waiting for opportunities to blow up into catastrophes. There’s much to admire here.

        But have a box of tissues to hand, to handle the tears.

        • Halloween Jack

          “It’s Over, Isn’t It” (from “Mr. Greg”) really got to me.

      • Murc

        Steven Universe is a masterclass in world-building, with each of the early episodes laying another brick in the edifice of canon.

        Yes and no.

        Steven Universe’s wonderful world-building is heavily, heavily, heavily dependent on Steven himself being almost comically, majestically uncurious about his history, his mother’s history, and the nature of the world around him. It’s like “Oh! There’s a whole planet full of gems out there that want to murder me and my family! Perhaps some questions about them are in order… mmmmmnah! I can do that later. I also don’t really need to know about the shocking, apocalyptic cataclysms that happened in the past to reduce most of gemkind on earth to corrupted, slavering monsters. I’m sure I’ll find out in due time!”

        It’s one of the very few things about the show that actively annoys me. It worked great in Season 1; Steven was very young, and the Gems were willfully keeping information from him on account of him being very young. But now Steven is, like, fighting brutal, ancient killing machines on the beach and suchly, and he still just doesn’t seem all that curious. Ask some questions, Steven!

        • Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

          It’s true, he doesn’t ask a lot of questions. But it’s also clear the various grown-ups around him are not at all keen to tell him much. Indeed, a lot of the first season (and ‘The Test’ in particular) made it explicit that he was being wrapped in cotton wool by the Crystal Gems, and not just physically.

          One of the most telling scenes was in the recent episode on the Moon, where it dawned on Steven what his mother had done and the Gems were frozen, knowing he’d stumbled across an uncomfortable secret.

          There’s a lot of interesting stuff like that coming out in the show. What Your Parents Are Too Scared To Tell You.

          • Murc

            But it’s also clear the various grown-ups around him are not at all keen to tell him much.

            Counterpoint: if Steven were to ask Peridot just about anything about Homeworld or gem history that she was even minimally informed about you probably couldn’t get her to shut up about it. There’d be flowcharts, slideshows. Lapis would be enlisted to do F/X work.

        • Gregor Sansa

          The general tenor of the show is lighthearted, even though they have averted the literal destruction of planet earth a few times now. Nobody in the entire show treats that threat with the absolute terror it deserves (though Garnet could plausibly be hiding her true thoughts). It’s not just Steven.

          Also, humans are totally uncurious about the gems. I mean, a spaceship crashes into a remote beach town, and the main response by humans is a single local conspiracy-theory blogger, not the joint governments and militaries of Earth. Ancient gem battlefields are dotted over the planet, and the only human in history who cares is one 18th-or-19th-century sailor.

          I think all of this is basically premise; suspending disbelief on that is the price of admission.

  • I don’t watch Steven Universe myself (I’ll probably get around to it, but at the moment it’s not at the top of my list of priorities), but this is a great essay about it and its appeal by Erin Horáková.

    (Erin is, in general, a great writer about SF TV and theater. I can’t put a second link in this comment, but if you go to the main Strange Horizons page from the one I’ve already included, you’ll see her recent essay about Blakes 7 at the top of the page. Again, not a show that I’ve watched, but Erin is fantastic at arguing not just for its importance and influence, but in discussing the way that television can and can’t address political issues in stories like it.)

  • synykyl

    My two daughters (26 and 24) love it. I watch it with them sometimes. It is adorable.

  • AndersH

    I still haven’t seen it, but it’s definitely on my list! Both because of all the praise I’ve heard and that it references the best, most feminist though problematic anime Revolutionary Girl Utena.

  • A Rising Ape

    One of the best shows on TV, and a godsend to all us fags, freaks and girly boys. It’s like all the best elements of Sailor Moon, Mr. Rogers and Drag Race combined ala Captain Planet.

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