People who feel very certain about the world feel very uncomfortable about nuance. And whatever they feel uncomfortable about quickly becomes the enemy.
One of the main things that Steven Universe serves to talk about is toxic behavior: where it comes from on an individual and structural level, and what to do about it. Every character on the show is carrying some grief or trauma, that affects their behavior. The show threads the needle of sympathy for the person and confronting the behavior, over and over. It’s delicate. So of course, people looking for black-and white, either-or answers to the questions that they specifically ask are going to have difficulty.
Take “Cry for Help,” the episode that first drew me in. This whole discussion that opens up here, and lasts for a while, it’s heavy as all hell. Consent is a constant theme with the show, and here Pearl coerced Garnet into fusion. It’s, you know—there are no good or bad people. There are good and bad actions. And, there’s trust. Most violence and abuse comes not from some evil bogeyman but from people close to you, who you generally trust—which is what this episodes serves to dive into.
Another way to put it is that Steven Universe focuses in on systemic violence and the way that it manifests in behavior, placing culpability for one’s actions as a part of that system rather than a value judgment on the individual—which we’re still having a bunch of trouble talking about as a society, and which seems to confuse the fuck out of people when you bring it up.) You want real change, the show argues, vilifying the individual won’t get you there. Hold them to account, but to truly fix anything you need to trace back and smash the system that led to the behavior in the first place.
A mind-blowing topic for a kids’ show, right? Even adult-targeted TV would prefer to avoid this discussion. So of course, the response from the Discourse Web more or less amounts to accusations that Rebecca Sugar somehow condones rape. Because discussing a subject in any shape or form means that you’re encouraging it, apparently.
The character of Stevonnie—a non-binary, intersex character formed from the (basically) platonic relationship between two teenagers—is one of the most nuanced and radical elements of the show, representing puberty, first loves, gender discovery, consent—so of course they’re the target of a million bad-faith hot takes, that make them an example of everything depraved going on in our society today.
Of particular focus is how every character in Stevonnie’s debut episode episode objectifies them, as if this is evidence of the show’s awfulness rather than part of the actual point of the episode, that it serves to talk about. Part of the whole deal here, that the show continues to talk about long-term, is the dark turn the story takes halfway through, when what had been an innocent exploration of self and new love and so on gets weird when they realize the new way other people are responding to them. (In real life, find a girl who hasn’t had to deal with this shit starting around… roughly the age that Connie actually is at this point in the story.) This leads them into an anxiety attack—a moment of weakness that in turn a skeevy douchebag uses as an invitation to intrude on their space, making them even more uncomfortable. The episode demonstrates this as a Bad Thing; a violation. An example of What Not To Do, Ever. And, what can happen.
“Alone Together” is a thematically dense, complicated piece of television. It fits so much into eleven minutes, covers so many important topics so effortlessly, all at the same time, it’s hard to know where to begin. Of course some people feel weird; this is revolutionary storytelling. It’s bold and confident in saying things that nobody else is saying, that dearly need to be said. Revolutions make people uncomfortable.
It’s frankly astonishing how well Steven Universe handles the uncomfortable topics it raises, and it’s so important for doing so. Thematically and structurally it works more like literature than typical television. But, people who are eager to react don’t have that patience.
“It’s not helpful to pin all evil on some external bogeyman,” the show says. “Anyone can be hurtful, and we all are responsible for our own behavior.”
The reactionary seethes in reply. “Only a bogeyman would say such a monstrous thing!”
When you ask people to look at their own behavior, a divide will open up and half of the audience will flip its shit. People who assume bad faith will erupt in their own geysers of bad faith and intone like a banshee, rejecting the idea that maybe they missed a beat somewhere. It’s this bottled reactionary impulse, just waiting for the right excuse. This is the highway that people use to accuse the show, and by extension its creators, of all manner of bizarre, extreme things, not limited to but including actual fascism.
(This is in response to a queer Jewish woman and majority non-white cast and crew. One… suspects there may be other, unspoken motives at play here.)
Some of the most galaxy-brain takes on the show involve expressions of rage that its story takes the angle of trying to carefully dismantle a complex, violent system from its roots rather than barging in and selectively killing people, expecting that will solve all the problems. That, combined with the notion that no one is good or bad—people do good things, bad things, bad things for good reasons, good things for bad reasons, and none of this needs to be morally gray—so that you can’t point to any one person and say, “they’re the villain,” causes great Online Anger.
People don’t like to hear that they’re asking the wrong question, that they’re looking at the world all wrong, and that’s the only answer the show has to give. About pretty much everything. As I say, its whole attitude is revolutionary. Which is why it freaks people out so much.