On Fucking Up

Flaw is character. Flaws are what make us actual people, and not just cartoons. Flaws are what allow for beauty and growth and potential. Without flaw there is no hope. Stories often pay lip service to or structurally apply this ideal. It’s fun to root for the underdog, the misfit, so long as you know they’re in the right all along and they’ll show everyone in the end.

The best thing about Steven Universe is how deeply flawed every character is, how much they hurt themselves and each other as a result, and how committed the show is to showing them compassion anyway, without excusing their behavior, until they can learn to do better.

The thing people hate about Steven Universe is how deeply flawed the characters are, how much that drives the story, and the show’s refusal to pass judgment on them as people no matter how much it emphasizes the damage they do.

Because in our culture compassion is endorsement. To address a thing means to legitimize it.

So when Pearl… does what she does to Garnet, and for all the appropriate horror and weight, the show doesn’t write Pearl off entirely and rather spends this whole arc exploring the fallout of her decision, the peanut gallery chimes in about the show’s problematic attitudes toward rape.

So when, in desperation and to mixed success, Steven attempts to talk down the Diamonds—convince them to use their power to help people instead of hurting them—rather than look for a way to kill them outright, we get two-hour-long screeds on how a bisexual nonbinary Jewish woman is a Nazi apologist.

What makes the show magical is that it will not draw hard lines about people; only about the damage and the growth they cause and experience. It shows that anyone is capable of positive or negative change. It shows how attitudes and behavior are systemic, and how they cause a chain reaction that manifests in cycles far outside one’s control or direct understanding.

It’s a show about unconditional love and hope for change in a world that sucks where people repeat the garbage they’ve learned and don’t know how to do better even if they understand and accept the harm they do. Where the first step often is just accepting the pain and moving on.

And fuck if that isn’t the most relevant message in the world.

But we’re a culture that roars for blood and righteous retribution, where the only people who do bad things are people who are innately bad, and where some people are just more human, more deserving, than others.

Maybe if we had a few more positive philosophical models like this show, our cultural narrative would shift a bit. As it is, it’s a moral outlier. As anything that prioritizes kindness over righteous obedience will be. Because that’s what an unkind oligarchy has taught us is trouble.

Steven Universe is the best TV show ever, seriously, and if you haven’t yet you need to watch it until you understand it.

Which may take a while, as it’s fucking strange, and queer, and neurodiverse, and doesn’t signify or indicate or move or talk or think like any other show out there. But it’ll change your mind, change your life, if you allow it.

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.

Sock me in the stomach three more times

In retrospect some elements of Big come off creepier than they were intended, or would have been perceived at the time. In the early ’80s when children vanished, people weren’t so much worried about molestation as they were about bodily harm. The assumption was that the motive for kidnapping was financial gain, rather than a personal drive. What other use is a kid, really, than ransoming him off?

Naive, maybe. But look at the way that products were advertised even back then. Would you buy something based on those ad campaigns? The 1980s may not seem that long ago, but our assumptions and attitudes about the world have changed so much. Racial, sexual, cultural understanding and acceptance are becoming more the norm. Taboo subjects have become everyday discussion. Even things like basic psychology have developed and spread so far.

This movie is grounded in the same mid-’80s American middle-class mindset as much children’s entertainment of the era, written by baby boomers more inclined to reflect on their own rosy memories of childhood than to observe the world and the real logistics around them. The kids don’t speak and interact like kids; they behave the way that adults remembered themselves in the 1950s. Hell, the whole theme of the movie is some baby boomer yearning for his own youth. Except sort of inverted.

I think I can appreciate this movie a little better as an adult, even given its weird cultural obliviousness. As a kid I remember it annoying me to no end. Everything was wrong. Why was everyone so excited about insect Transformers? Insecticons had been around for years at that point. The bulk of the oh-so-droll jokes about social security numbers and workplace politics bored me or went over my head. The only appeal the movie had for me was the setpieces like the FAO Schwartz piano duet, Tom Hanks’ apartment hijinks, and all the Zoltar business. It was all flash and curiosity. Was that really what it was like to move into your own apartment? Was that really what it was like to get a job? Wow, it would be great to be left alone to wander around in FAO Schwartz, or that carnival.

Now I can stand back and understand the movie’s ambition. I still marvel at its blinkered vision, but from within a cultural context that I can appreciate. As a case study, it gets a person thinking.