Sunday, November 8

Gender, Consent, Cartoons

Sometime last year I caught a mini-marathon of Steven Universe. I didn't exactly know what I was watching - why does this kid have a gem in his belly, who are these magical super women, what are these monsters they're fighting? - but I was intrigued. The show seemed to be playing with anime tropes (magical space girls (and Steven!), monsters of the day, even mechas what with the Gems' ability to fuse and...well we don't need to get into their biomechanics, but the long and short of it is that they're basically mechas) but anime tropes in a really fresh, American, cartoon way that made the show interesting to me, an adult, but still accessible and fun for a child.
I kept watching the show, piecing together what I had missed from earlier episodes and reading everything on the Steven Universe Wiki, and by the end of season 1 I was hooked; a fan officially and forever. In addition to being a fun show about magic space creatures, a saga thousands of years in the making that began with aliens colonizing earth, a rebellion, and the first and only birth of a half human/half Gem hybrid, the show is remarkably sophisticated. It's racially diverse, ambiguously inclusive, modern but palatable for kids, the way Nickelodeon was in the 90's. The characters are constantly skirting around and dealing with difficult, real life subject matter and it's basically just aching to be someone's dissertation.
I'm personally interested in how the show deals with loss and death, but in a really gentle way that's accessible for kids. Because all Gems are actually their gems, the stones that give them power, and because Steven is his mother's gem, she does not get to exist while he does. There is a lot of grief among the show's characters because of her absence, but none so poignant as Steven's. Let me just say that I'm pretty regularly crying when I'm watching this show. I'm crying right now actually, and if you've seen the tape Rose Quartz left for Steven then you know why.
The show also plays around with gender a lot. It is, for all intents and purposes, a magical girl series, but the magical girl in question is a little boy. All the tropes are there: a young person given a remarkable gift, learning to harness it, developing a sense of responsibility and proprietorship for the world they live in. This is Steven, a young boy growing up in the care of some space aliens, learning his place in the world. Steven is essentially Sailor Moon. His greatest power doesn't come from him being half an alien, but rather from being half human. His ability to love, to see the good in people, to be curious and joyful and openhearted, these things are what save the day much more often than not. This is not a typical little boy show - Steven gets to be who he is, a loving, caring person who also sometimes fights bad guys. It's interesting even to think about his weapons. While the other Gems fight with whips, a staff and giant boxing gloves, Steven's weapons are completely defensive. He has a big shield, healing powers, and can create a protective bubble around himself and others. He is essentially a feminine trope: protective, nurturing and kind. There's also a pretty cute episode where Steven puts on a dress and heels to help a friend. It's such a positive change to typical depictions of what a boy can or should be, and I think Steven as a role model for little boys couldn't be better.
The gender play doesn't stop at Steven, however, because the Gems are basically agendered. They're magic space rocks with the ability to project a physical form, but these forms often look very female. They're all voiced by women and look like women, but they just sort of aren't. Even still, if gender is performance and the gems are performing as women, they're all pretty kick ass and varied women. Steven's human friend, Connie is also an interesting female character. She starts off as an introverted bookworm and is currently a sword wielding baby badass reminiscent of Revolutionary Girl Utena. It's like nobody in the show plays the role they're supposed to, which makes sense because even the Crystal Gems refused to perform the way their homeplanet dictated, and instead rebelled to save Earth.
Perhaps the most interesting thing the show has done so far is to address issues with sex and consent. This is not an obvious or direct discussion, but it's a pretty clear comparison. Some background: Gems can create a bond called fusion. Fusion starts with a dance, and when the dance is complete the two gems will form one new one. This new gem is a completely different being with a mind of its own created from the stronger personality traits of the two original gems. Sometimes this turns out well or okay, and the fusion can get a job done or take down a bad guy, for instance when Garnet and Pearl fuse. Sometimes this turns out poorly, like when Garnet and Amethyst fuse and their fusion is a destructive psycho. Typically fusions are imperfect. They have multiple limbs and eyes or are unsustainable. Bad fusions, like the one between Lapis Lazuli (chaotic neutral) and Jasper (true evil), are super messed up and look more animal than human.
In one episode, Connie and Steven accidentally fuse while dancing and the fusion is perfect; there are no extra eyes or limbs. Together, they are a tall, pretty girl with Steven's hair and Connie's skin. In this episode everyone is very concerned with their fusion, except for Garnet, who is elated. We later find out that Garnet, who is perfect except for having an extra eye, is herself a fusion between Ruby and Sapphire, two gems who love each other so much they can't bear to be apart.
This is all just to say that the better the relationship between the members of a fusion, the happier the actual union. Ruby and Sapphire are different, but they balance each other out, and they love each other, so Garnet's existence is pretty close to perfect. We have yet to see it, and Steven and Connie are both pretty young, but it's a pretty safe bet that, based on their fusion, they're destined to be together. So, fusion is a fairly obvious proxy for sex. Good sex is built off of a good relationship, between people who love and care for one another, are willing to work with one another and listen to each other. The better the relationship, the more powerful the sex/fusion.
So, when, in a brief second season arc, Pearl is revealed to have tricked Garnet into several fusions, issues of consent come into play. Pearl apologizes to Garnet, but Garnet is so angry that she can't even stay fused, and Ruby and Sapphire split apart so that they can fight. Pearl's actions are foolish but also damn near taboo, as a fusion with reluctance is pretty uncouth, but a fusion without consent is cruel, ugly, offensive. The fallout hurts everyone in the group and takes weeks to dissipate. With this understanding of consent now in place in the series, a later arc has the Gems discover several mutations, forced fusions made from shards of broken (dead) gems. All of the Gems are horrified, but Garnet is so shocked, so disgusted that she can't even fight. If fusion is a proxy for sex, then forced fusion is a proxy for rape, and Garnet's horror in this episode is palpable.
I would argue that fusion in the show is a very conscious metaphor for love, sex, consent or a lack thereof. Without consent the fusions are ugly, inoperable, freakish, even horrific when they come from a place of force. We see that when it comes to closeness of this magnitude, to giving yourself to someone in such a personal way, that being tricked into it or even forced is akin to rape. This is a conversation I've not seen done this well in any other medium aside from actual, factual discussions based in reality. Comic books turn rape into a plot device meant to make male characters grow or to turn female characters into bad asses. Movies sexualize it. Steven Universe has taken the issue of consent and turned it into a central theme, something to be cherished when it's present, and horrified by when it's not. And that it manages to do this in a way that's still palatable and accessible to kids is incredible. While I know there aren't kids watching and thinking in this way, they are watching and thinking, "Wow. I want to have a friendship like Steven and Connie's. I want to be in a close, loving and trusting relationship like Ruby and Sapphire." I think healthy, happy role models in strong relationships are a positive step toward changing the way we think about sex and consent, especially when so much of what we see of love on TV is the drama and not the positivity and trust we ought to.
For this and many other reasons, I encourage you to check out Steven Universe. I say this all the time, but we are really living in a new golden age of American animation, and Rebecca Sugar's Steven Universe will be remembered as a cornerstone of this era. Every week I'm excited to see how the show will move forward, and I'm even more excited to see what the show will inspire in future cartoonists and animators.

1 comment:

Otter said...

I LOVE this post. I think Steven Universe is such an amazing show and you perfectly conveyed why it is so great!