Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Cartoons all Revolutionary Socialists should make their kids watch, Part VI Steven Universe

Welcome back to this occasional series which I haven’t updated for way too long.  This installment is a bit of a departure because it doesn’t deal with a series from my childhood or a more recent feature film, but with a series that is currently ongoing and yet to reach its completion, something I hadn’t anticipated doing way back when I started this.

What it’s about:

Thousands of years ago a race of immortal crystalline alien beings from another part of the galaxy (the Gems) came to the planet earth in order to harvest it for its mineral properties.  Some of the Gems realised that the merely organic life-forms, the animal and plant life that lived on the planet which would inevitably be exterminated by the harvesting process had intrinsic worth no less than their own and rebelled against their home-world.  They succeeded, saving the planet and the life on it but at a cost, all but four of the rebels being destroyed in the final battle.  In the centuries and millennia since as human civilisation has grown up around them these surviving crystal gems have been quietly protecting the organic life on this planet from the odd crystalline mutants that occasionally threaten it.
Steven and his girlfriend Connie training to fight the bad Gems

More recently, the leader of the rebels, Rose Quartz, fell in love with a human called Greg Universe and in order to procreate (something the crystal gems can’t do by themselves) she gave up her own mortal form to give birth to a son, Steven.  The series picks up when Steven is just on the cusp of adolescence, and follows him on his adventures as he learns to use the powers and abilities he inherited from his mother to take his place as a defender of the Earth, and learns to be a young human being as well.

Why it’s Good:

I think its easy for our generation to get overly emotionally attached to our childhood memories and easily dismiss any contemporary animated series in favour of nostalgia for the stuff we used to watch when we were wee.  This would be a mistake and Steven Universe is but one example of something that is as good as if not better than any of the stuff we used to have.  In fact one of the things that makes it good, and I believe should be accessible to people my age who might have kids of their own, is that it is quite clearly the product on one of our generation.  

From the little chip-tune bassline in the opening titles to the background art and character design the whole aesthetic of the show is permeated by 8 and 16 bit computer gaming culture.  You can also see the influence of Anime through the look and the story lines of the whole series.  It’s kawaii without being sickeningly cutesy (a balancing act that is often tried and utterly failed at in Western animation).  

The show is light, funny, full of charm but also has this epic backstory and various arc-plots that run throughout it and lots of big sci-fi concepts that are jut casually implanted into the story in a way that seems perfectly natural and wouldn’t confuse or alienate its younger viewers.  Its emotional when it wants to be and when the arc plots kick into gear towards the apex of the seasons it is genuinely exciting.

What the Young ’Uns will hopefully take from it: 

The underlying philosophy of the show is intensely humanist.  Steven, our hero’s main attribute is his humanity and empathy.  he sympathises with the mindless crystal shard creatures which he and the Gems have to hunt down, and this sympathy can be an advantage, something which he has over the Gems.  

While much of the premise of the show is quite personal (it is inspired by the relationship between the show’s creator and her younger brother) there is some very deep subtext going on that should be of interest to readers of this blog.  As alluded to above, the Gems come from a rigidly hierarchical society that is prepared to commit ecocide for its own material gain and the goodies in the series are rebels that defy their social norms by becoming more than their designated roles. Which is great and everything but so far, so liberal.  The really interesting stuff is what the show does with gender and sexuality.

Greg with an infant Steven from a recent episode
In the series the Gems don’t procreate organically and so needn’t have any particular gender but yet are all female.  Which essentially means that the characters with Super-Powers are all women.  This was a deliberate move on the part of the show’s creator Rebecca Sugar to "tear down and play with the semiotics of gender in cartoons for children”.  The show isn’t intended to be an action adventure show for boys or a cutesy show for girls but to break the gendered social norms of the medium and create something genuinely inclusive.  There’s implied lesbianism, the show has touched on gender queerness.  The one adult male figure in the shows main cast, Greg Universe (Steven’s dad) is kind of a bum, though he is sympathetically realised and still quite a good dad.  Basically we are a long long way from He-Man.  This is perhaps the main reason that it has the massive multi-generational fanbase that it has.

What’s also really interesting on the show is the concept of Fusion.  In the context of the show two Gems can, through a delicate dance particular to their pairing, come together or ‘Fuse’ into a single being with the qualities and attributes of each.  What this concept is used to explore on the show is the nation of human connection, relationships, taboos around sex and sexuality.  This is done with deftness of touch and a sex-positivity as well as body positivity and acceptance of difference.

Capitalism is structured around patriarchy and the behavioural norms associated with the nuclear family, heteronormativity and cis-sexism.  Cultural projects like Steven universe that are about consciously breaking down those structures could be argued to be part of a re-alignment within bourgeois society, or alternatively as being an inevitable part of the gradual realignment of the system into something else.  Either way it would seem to be a step in the right direction, and its great that the show itself is so good while wearing its deeper meaning on its sleeve.  Its one of the few shows rom recent years I’m sorry i didn’t get to watch when I was younger but I’m glad exists now.

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