Punitive Narrative Justice

Redemption is a reductive kind of moralism. 

Zuko doesn’t really have a redemption arc, because he was never “bad.” The Diamonds don’t really have a redemption arc, because they never become “good.” Redemption is a weird external moralistic concept that has nothing to do with individual character development or lack thereof.

To put it another way: The Last Airbender never condemns Zuko, so forgiveness isn’t the point of the story; and Steven Universe never forgives the Diamonds, because nothing could ever make up for what they did.

This isn’t to say that the characters don’t change their behavior for the better. What I’m criticizing is a binary and extrinsic reading of morality in relation to narrative function, as opposed to an intrinsic reading of situational character motivation. 

Redemption is an externally imposed concept that doesn’t allow for agency or intention, but rather describes a functional narrative approach to character. It suggests: 

  1. an innate change of a character’s essence, 
  2. to serve the demands of another’s morality…

… which is a simplistic understanding of psychology, social dynamics, and… just, judgment. Really, redemption is all about judgment, which lies in the perspective of the narrative voice. It’s an external thing, where the story passes sentence on characters and demands that they change who they are in order to suit its morality and make up for their past sins, and to thereby be forgiven by the story. Which is a super basic concept of humanity that doesn’t apply in either case above.

Zuko is shown from pretty close to the start as a victim; he’s not a Bad Guy who Turns Good. His arc is a matter of self-realization and emergence from an abuse narrative, and its resolution involves reaching a common understanding, not repaying moral debt.

And the Diamonds, they are never forgiven. They change their behavior out of argument for how it’s not helping them achieve their own individual intentions. Even at the end, they are shown to be extremely self-centered characters who have difficulty understanding anything outside of how it affects them directly. Steven tolerates them at a stretch, once they change their behavior enough that they no longer pose a threat to others. But what they did will never be okay, no matter what they do, and the story makes no pretense of balancing the scales. 

Compare to, say, something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the characters of Angel or Spike. In the case of Spike the protagonists stick a microchip in him, taking away his agency, until he gets used to behaving the way they want him to. With Angel, the change mostly happens before we meet him. But the notion is that they’re Bad characters who become Good, and then feel sorry and try to make amends for what they’ve done. Similarly Missy, in the Peter Capaldi era of Doctor Who, undergoes a redemption after serving penitence for years in solitary confinement and out of a desire to please the Doctor and try to play out his concept of morality. 

In all cases, there’s this notion of penitence and turning from Evil. With Spike the change comes after the microchip, which changes his behavior until he becomes accustomed to the new way of being, even after it’s removed. It’s a punitive, judgmental, carceral sort of a moralism. The idea is to show people how Bad they are until they are ashamed of themselves and they want to stop being Bad—”Go to your room and think about what you did”—all of which ignores the complexities of how and why people do things based on their understanding and their systemic context, and treats others as lacking a degree of agency independent of those passing judgment on them and their own individual interests.

You are not a person, the redemption narrative asserts; you are a story function within my life. 

Refusal

So Maya Petersen recently tweeted out the obvious yet previously unvoiced behind-the-scenes intention for Peridot to be Steven Universe’s aroace representation. This shouldn’t be a surprise, particularly given Peri’s role in Rebecca Sugar’s “all about fusion” children’s book a while back. (“And if you don’t want to fuse… that’s cool, too.”) But, of course, this admission has led to discourse.

There are now a hundred and twelve long and angry rants in all the usual places about why making Peridot aroace is somehow a bad thing. One of the more creative is the notion that because we’re using fusion as a way to illustrate this, it suggests that autistic people are incapable of forming meaningful relationships of any sort. Which, just…

Yikes.

I feel like people push back way too hard against the reductive reading of fusion-as-sex, to the point where it’s functionally meaningless. “It’s not sex,” people assert, “it’s just any kind of relationship at all!” And, no. That overcorrects to the point where if anything it would be more accurate to just shrug and say, okay, they’re all fucking.

Fusion is about intimacy. It’s about being so in-harmony with another person that the boundaries disappear and you might as well be one. Ergo, the dancing. In our touch-starved culture it’s super hard to draw the line between intimacy and sex, to the point that intimacy is often used as a synonym for sex. People often don’t seem to understand there are other kinds of intimacy.

To say that fusion is just any old relationship reduces the metaphor to the point where it might as well not even exist, all out of a fear of coming anywhere near a discussion of fucking or an inability to separate fucking from intimacy.

Not every relationship is going to be an intimate one. That would be nuts. Not every intimate relationship is going to be a sexual one. That would be unfortunate.

As a highly sex-averse (and even touch-averse) aroace person myself, I see zero functional problem with the use of fusion as a metaphor when discussing a lack of sexual or romantic attraction. A person can have lots of kinds of relationships without a desire for intimacy—be it romantic or sexual or anything else in nature. And likewise in the show, people can have relationships without fusing. Peridot and Steven have a relationship, a close and special one, and they are unlikely to fuse on purpose. There are boundaries, that Peridot is unlikely to feel motivated to cross.

With an understanding of Peridot’s intended representation, the metaphor continues to work exactly as deigned.



There’s also a popular thread where people like to leap on Peri’s obvious autistic coding as basis for why any little thing under the moon is problematic when applied to her in particular, but. Again, speaking as an autistic person, this all seems… correct?

Yeah, an inherent problem with representation is that everyone is different so no single representative is going to completely map with an individual’s experience. But, they shouldn’t have to. That’s absurd. Not everything is about me, or about you, or about the next person in particular.

I’m reminded of how Wikipedia editors seem to think it’s impossible to summarize Doctor Who without diving deep into the character’s allergy to aspirin. It’s crucially important to understanding who the character is, they will insist.

Ideally there wouldn’t just be one aroace-coded character in the show, and they wouldn’t also be an autistic-coded character, and so on and so on. But, let’s take a step back and consider: there is an aroace-coded character, and there is a positively portrayed autistic-coded character. Both of which are vanishingly unusual. And the way they’re depicted is broadly accurate and sympathetic, both within the show’s language and in terms of what’s being represented. Not in every way for every autistic person, or every aroace person, but I am also not every autistic person or every aroace person, and though I shouldn’t expect my experience to mirror anyone else’s completely I think I have a few relevant things to say about my own.

Like Stevonnie or Garnet, Peridot isn’t perfect, idealized representation. She’s just roughly accurate, literary-coded representation in a field where even that is difficult to find. There’s nothing wrong with her depiction, with her coding, or the continued use of the endlessly complicated metaphor of fusion to explain something almost never explained in mainstream contemporary fiction. I’m aroace, and her aversion to intimacy is accurate to my experience. I’m autistic, and her collection of obsessions and blind spots is cartoonish but also accurate. The intersection of the two is something that I can easily identify with.

Not everyone will, and not everyone has to. And that’s okay. That doesn’t mean they’re doing it wrong. It doesn’t mean ill intent. It just means that everyone is different.

And that we really need to understand what intimacy is, in this culture.

The Norm, and Conquest

It bothers me when pundits talk about “destroying norms” like it’s a bad thing. We should constantly be examining and dismantling norms as a matter of procedure. This is how, e.g., science works. What is a problem is when we replace them with much worse, more damaging norms.

That is what freaks people out about Bernie and causes them to equate him with Trump. They’re both out to destroy our norms! It’s the Norman Conquest!

Our norms fucking suck. This is why Trump got elected. People wanted rid of them so much they didn’t care what came next.

Neoliberalism is a lattice of norms that serve to complicate and hide and rationalize the garbage that people have to go through every day, explaining why they should never hope for anything better. It puts people in categories and places while claiming enlightenment.

Norms suck. They only make sense as temporary placeholders, that you check every fucking time you access them to see if they’re still applicable and relevant. And if not, you replace them with something better. This is how life and knowledge and empathy all work.

As an autistic, this point especially rankles. I get a PTSD trigger out of this sense that we need to adhere to unspoken structures just because they exist, never question them. No, dammit. Always ask, why are we doing this? What does it assume? Who does it serve?

Can we be doing this better? Or is this just to protect the power structure?

Because that’s always what it is, right.

Norms are politesse. Politesse is power gaming.

This is what allows the powerful to set people against each other, by saying, “Hey, that vulnerable group is saying it’s impolite for you to behave like this! The snobs! Are you gonna just take that from them?!”

When you’re all wound up, just being asked to be kind to another person can be confused for more bureaucracy meant to put you in your place. Neoliberalism and fascism both depend on this bafflement, which is what makes them such close allies.

Fascism is all about smashing norms as a gesture of progress, only to replace them with even more restrictive norms, over and over, putting people in even smaller boxes. So it’s exasperating, but for the neoliberal, HEY AT LEAST THEY ARE BUILDING NEW NORMS. AND WE’RE STILL SAFE.

“We” of course meaning the business and pundit class. Not the people who need to live (or not) in this society.

Socialism threatens to take away that whole power infrastructure and give nothing in return, because that structure that demands never to be questioned is itself the problem.

Like, new structures will appear! But they will be built to purpose, and reexamined as that purpose shifts.

I can’t deal with invisible power structures. Which is a big reason I am such a mess. Why I have historically gotten in so much trouble. Sometimes for, like, having the wrong expression on my face. Nobody likes them except those they serve. But I in particular cannot manage.

I have zero sympathy for rounding the wagons and protecting the precious norms. The white settlers. Clutching their pearls.

Dismantle it all. Carefully. Like an archeologist, removing a relic from its crust. Pack it away to a museum somewhere appropriate to show how things were.

Life goes on. Work with those who exist here and now, and those we can reasonably expect to come. Meet the needs that exist in the world.

For the norms that are really trenched in good, well.

Obedientia Fortuna

There’s this sense among the privileged that those who do not share their privilege are just going out of their way to get attention. As if the fuss they cause about accommodations or safety is all in fun. Any experience other than their own is some kind of Hollywood myth. If somehow the disadvantaged are not faking it for the lulz, then the Lutheran devil kicks in and, clearly they’re just not trying hard enough or otherwise are of poor moral character, because why else would they be in such an absurd condition?

“Well,” grunts Joe America, “obviously you brought it on yourself, or else the universe in its wisdom has judged against you, so why should I respond with anything other than contempt? (But clearly you must be pretending. For reasons that I can’t articulate at the moment. It’s got to be a scheme. And I’ll show you.)”

I feel like “I Won’t Let You Win” should be the national motto.

This mentality also more or less defines hard Internet culture. The worst thing a person can do, by Internet Law, is suggest they have something different or remarkable to contribute.

We could double up by printing “You Think You’re Better Than Me?!” on back of the dollar bill.

And that’s the thing. A disability, or a marginalized identity, sets people apart, therefore drawing attention, therefore making the less privileged seem in some small way remarkable, which draws suspicion and anger from those who feel a regular need to demonstrate a worth that they’re paranoid they can’t perform.

We’ve got these strong markers as to what makes a person a success. What makes a real man, a proper woman. A true adult. You gotta win, gotta earn more, do better. Gotta collect all the pieces on the board and earn the praise. Maybe get famous? A winner deserves fame, after all.

Our whole culture is competition—and a competition has standard rules. So what are these people doing on the margins, if not cheating by setting themselves apart? That’s not even a real lane! How does this fit into the game I’ve been taught? Well, got to police that. Just because I don’t understand the grift doesn’t mean I can’t see when someone is playing by different rules. And in the unlikely event they’re not faking it… well. They lost. That’s how a game works. Why are we wasting time here?

In sum, ha, ha, the driving myth of our society is garbage.

Horatio Alger can go hang himself with his bootlaces.

One Specific Forever

Amongst its twined majesties, I think paramount for me about “Alone Together” is the tone and atmosphere that it sets, pairing its heady thematic material with the heightened hues of an eternal twilight. You can almost hear the air, and smell the light. It’s such a specific feel.

It’s a heartbeat, stretched into hours then compressed to 11 minutes. It’s one of those fleeting moments where time nevertheless stops, that stay with you for the rest of your life. The kind of formative experience that you wish you could go back and live in forever.

Katie Mitroff’s frequent point-of-view and reversal shots work overtime to pull you into this headspace, and hold you there until the ride is over—making you a part of the fusion, as it were. They’re so emotionally specific, and intense. That specificity is important.

The episode plays out like a memory. It’s specific in its emotion, vague on the detail; it skips around and rambles and devolves. All of that hinges on the impossible sensory detail. There’s no way it could be twilight for that long, or all those events could fit into that time—and there’s almost too much that happens, like it can’t all be memory of the same evening. It’s such a disorienting rush to watch and process, much as it would have been to live through. And yet, it’s beautiful. Every breath of it haunts our senses, competing with the last. After eleven minutes you feel like you’ve watched a breakout independent film, or relived a pivotal experience you can’t believe you’d forgotten—one drenched in a very particular shade of purple, that hums in the near darkness.

As ever, Steven Universe paints in sound as much as in digital wash, and there are long periods in this episode without dialogue. Even when characters speak, they hesitate, allowing the scenery into their pauses. That endless purgatory growl of the ocean, eerily present in every episode, rarely claims more space than it does here.

Around these beats, aivi & surasshu somehow fit six and a half minutes of original music. Each track blocks out a different step in the spiraling mood of the piece, that works together with the intervening silence and ambiance. The whole third act is overlaid with this increasingly oppressive dance music, as the experience spins out of control and anything like a desirable range of stimulation. There’s no silence here. No room for reflection or joy. And somehow it all sounds just as purple as the sky.

“Alone Together” is some kind of temporal anomaly. I feel like I could live a life in that episode—and that I sort of do, each time that I see it. It’s as subjective as the show gets, which is some achievement for a show as steeped in metaphor as Steven Universe. Its closest runner-up may be its own nightmare reflection of “Together Alone.” Both episodes are irrational, but involve very different experiences; the latter nightmare twists and corrupts the fond memory, turning a moment of euphoria and self-discovery into one of shame and fear. Which, as a piece of storytelling, sure is something.

In an earlier pass on this topic I incorrectly guessed that Rebecca Sugar herself—who receives a rare co-boarding credit on this episode—was responsible for the point-of-view shots and their reversals, due to the specificity and intimacy of those moments. On reflection, though, Katie Mitroff makes total sense, considering her work on “We Need to Talk” and “The Test,” which contain very similar held shots.

As it happens, Sugar’s main contribution is toward the center of the episode, with the Crystal Gems’ responses to Stevonnie and the now-iconic “twilight run” sequence, an animation that further involved the show’s most dynamic regular boarder, Jeff Liu. Add in a moshing animation from Ian Jones-Quarty, whose direct involvement with the show seems minimal after the first few episodes, and it really feels like they pulled in every hand they could to massage this episode into form.

With four years of hindsight it should be clear how pivotal “Alone Together” is for the show as a whole, but it’s becoming just as clear they were aiming for posterity at the time. If there’s one moment of the show that was to last forever, it would be this one.

And in the long run, it very well may be.