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. 

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.

The Weight of Masks

The first season of Steven Universe is twice as long as most, and constitutes the entirety of the show’s first act. It’s complicated a bit in that the second half of the season was a pickup, tacked onto the ongoing production of the first half. So in episodes 25-26, we have what amounts to a season finale—but instead it serves as a transition and swerve into a rather different back half, that serves to deconstruct the naivete of the first 26 episodes and set up everything else to come.

In particular, season 1b (as people call it) is about Steven’s slow realization that each and every adult in his life is unreliable in a different way, to a different extent. More than unreliable; they’re more screwed-up and scared than he is, and none has a clue what they’re doing. So, this developmentally delayed thirteen-year-old takes it unto himself to quietly parent them; put their needs before his own—which sets his ball rolling on emotional problems that will develop over the rest of the show.

That developing martyr complex combines with Steven’s impression that everyone he loves would be happier if his mom were still around instead of him, a view that he makes explicit early in the next season. He learns to keep these thoughts close, so it’s hard to know what he’s thinking until he states it.

Steven feels he has no one he can talk to, because anyone close to him, he’s afraid to burden them any further. Even Connie, his best friend and for most of the show the only person he feels close enough to fuse with, he’s half terrified at this point of saying the wrong thing and disappointing her.

He feels this need to constantly be on. The cheery, goofy Steven, who everyone expects—that becomes an act; a front he drops when he’s alone, which, once you see it, becomes distressing to witness. It’s in these rare unguarded moments by himself, or around people he doesn’t know too well, that it becomes clear just how much weight the kid is carrying and just never expressing, that he has no clue how to manage.

The one thing that may fuck him up more than anything is the last line on this, the tape his mom left him under mysterious circumstances:

As the show develops, so does his sense of betrayal around Rose. There are big triggers later that amp it up and give specific things to point at, but it’s more complicated, cuts way deeper, on levels he may not fully understand. All this sublimating himself for everyone’s benefit, this masking, it’s a thing he does largely on faith—faith that at least this one mythical person, who in his mind everyone wishes were alive instead of him, knew what she was doing, had an answer or an idea for him to work with. But of course, as becomes very clear, Rose had less of a clue than anyone.

“Take care of them, Steven,” Rose says— but what Steven hears is, “You are responsible for them, now. Your needs aren’t important.” And boy does he take that to heart.

Some 107 episodes later, in the middle of a severe identity crisis, Steven literally trips over an alternate tape, discarded even more carelessly than his own. It’s the same in all respects, except this time addressed to a certain Nora—as clarified, a potential name if Steven had been deemed a girl at birth. Neither tape was stored with care, entrusted with anyone; they both were just left in random corners of Rose’s realm, as if she’d grown distracted and forgotten them.

I think a disturbing aspect of the Nora tape, given Steven’s unraveling psychological state at that point, is its revelation of the act that Rose had put on in his tape. Until this point it had seemed so intimate, like she was speaking to him through time and magnetic decay, but, no. He… wasn’t that special. Now here she is, giving his rousing personal mission statement to… someone else. Someone who doesn’t even exist. It’s hard to process. After everything else he’s been through, this swerve is kind of like one football too many.

It’s the last straw for Steven. From here we go straight into martyrdom. He’s just… had it at this point. Nothing matters anymore, nothing has any meaning except maybe protecting the people he cares about. Realizing that he’s personally responsible for this latest mess, due to spiraling chaos from, yes, way back in season 1b, just clinches it: they’re all better without him.

It’s fine.

Audible Dissonance

Many alt-periodical grafs have gone toward the five seasons of trans subtext that the “Diamond Days”/Homeworld arc brings to the fore and nails down as Kinda The Point Of This Whole Deal. What I’ve not seen discussed is how “Legs from Here to Homeworld” states its thesis on that.

Maybe because the episode was posted online several months before broadcast, so most of the commenting class didn’t first it in the specific context of the 90 minutes of theme-dump that it served to introduce. Maybe because since the bulk is set on Earth, it feels less connected.

What gets me about the episode more than anything, though, is its first scene. We have a few seconds of dialog that summarizes what happened in the last episode, to catch people up. And then, Yellow stomps up to drag us into the story.

“How could you do this to us, Pink? Why did you let us think you were shattered? Why the strange disguise? Why are you doing a voice? Why didn’t you say something at the trial?”

Yes, it’s expository. Yes, it’s functional. But take another look. I’m talking about the weird part.

“Why are you doing a voice?” she asks.

Yikes.

That’s not a throwaway line.

There are all these in-jokes that aren’t really jokes, right, about what people actually want from a transition versus what everyone assumes and even tells them they really want. Usually (not always) the highest priorities have to do with immediacy: simple everyday signifiers.

Things like one’s face, one’s voice, hair, that from moment to moment help affirm a person’s identity, to one’s self and others. Voice is a subtle yet major one; you can do a lot of things with your face or your hair or your wardrobe. Your voice, though, that’s more difficult.

It’s harder technically, and it’s more existential. To a significant extent, we all associate our voice with who we are. We talk about our sense of identity as our inner monologue. You often can tell more about a person from their voice than from their face. I know I tend to.

So, it’s kind of a big question mark for someone in the middle of a transition. Like, what do we do about this, then? On the FtM end, hormones can have some effect. MtF, not really. If there’s a solution, it tends to be voice training, which is fine, but it brings its own issues.

The most obvious problem is that it’s hard. It takes a ton of practice; a ton of time; a ton of investment. It’s exhausting, stressful. It’s hard to keep up all the time, to get to the point where it clicks and starts to feel sometimes right, sometimes natural, and then a habit.

The bigger problem goes back to the existential thing, which goes back to the basic anxiety at the core of so much of the trans experience. It’s that basically what it comes down to is a performance. Which makes it a big pressure point for the whole delicate cognitive lattice.

The nature of coming to grips with one’s gender identity, it’s about a search for truth, right. Realigning one’s self-concept with what’s actually going on neurologically, emotionally; with the way one’s brain is in fact wired, regardless of what others have always insisted.

But like any search for truth, there’s always this sense of, well, but what if I’m wrong? What if what everyone’s been telling me my whole life is right, and I’m just having this episode, deluding myself? What am I even doing? That doubt, it’s often, usually not that far away.

Which is the button that White Diamond serves to hammer on like a maniac some 75 minutes later. But for the moment we’ve got Yellow Diamond, confronting Steven about why he’s “doing a voice.” Which sets the scene for eight episode-slots of pointed existential invalidation.

Like. Most of the things that go into a transition, they’re nouns that one wears. A voice is a verb, that one acts. Your voice is your voice. It’s the key to everything in a way. And to enunciate one’s truth necessitates a performance. Granted we’re all a story, but. Well.

To single out Steven’s voice in particular as a signifier of “Pink” just pretending, playing a little game, it’s such an easy blow, and in the context of what the show is talking about during this arc, there’s no way that line is in there by accident. Few lines in this show are.

I mean, yes, surface level it’s a non sequitur, or nearly so; a gag of the rambling train-of-thought mode that the show often employs. On a metatextual level there’s the fact that actually, Zach Callison has been affecting Steven’s voice since halfway through the first season.

But more to the point, it’s there to sting, on a thematic level. That outright dismissal of something that, in a real world context, would have taken so much work, be such an easy pressure point to all of one’s existential doubts… it’s really nailing down where this is going.

I just, I felt like drawing out that sequence of words. They struck me the first time I heard them, even though my head wasn’t completely in a place to interpret them at the time, and they’ve stayed with me since. They stand out more than anything else in that first chapter.

Let’s Talk About Social Media

So most of the response to this PSA has been thunderously positive, of course, with people who feel like they’ve never had any kind of formal representation now having it spelled out in unambiguous terms, and declaring that they feel seen and validated for the first time by pop culture. But of course, it also has attracted its share of gatekeepers, with their folded arms and upturned noses—who to the last seem to intentionally misconstrue the spot in order to launch their rants about why this representation is Bad, Actually.

The first, and weirdest, thing they all focus on is that being intersex doesn’t always mean being a perfect 50/50 blend of male and female—true enough, though of debatable relevance for this discussion—which they then immediately transition into a discussion of what may or may not be between Stevonnie’s legs, thereby to fume about how irresponsible it is to talk about this subject.

Now. The thing about this conversation is, uh, they’re the only ones talking about it. All the ad specifies is the obvious fact that Stevonnie is intersex. It doesn’t get into what that signifies here, nor should it need to. Presumably the character is gonna have a whole soup of chromosomes and hormones and neurology. People are making the leap to anatomy—but, er, why, in good faith? That says more about the person doing the assuming than anything that’s been stated.

When I read the text on the screen, my brain doesn’t go straight to Stevonnie’s genitals, because holy shit, why? It goes to their wide hips and higher vocal register, yet their coarse facial hair. It goes to the more abstract issue of their being an independent person with a physical body that’s not gonna conform to a definition of binary sex.

This is of course how Internet Discourse works: manufacturing a problem, and then attacking your own projections as if they were something inherent in the surface that you’re flailing toward, rather than engaging with what’s there on paper or the spirit of the work, its metaphors, and what it serves to talk about. It’s not about a conversation—which is unfortunate, as this show is so eager to hold one in earnest.

Steven Universe is a sci-fi fantasy, that communicates complicated ideas extensively through metaphor. Any given story element serves to talk about a bunch of things at once. The character of Stevonnie is about puberty, consent, first relationships, gender identity, the duality of self, self-love, self-doubt, feelings of objectification. As I’ve been saying forever, in a sense they’re the stealth main character, with the story treating their components Steven and Connie as two halves of one person even when apart—and in Stevonnie, embodied as a person struggling with anxiety over their own self-definition. Stevonnie is easily the most complex character in the show; when they manifest, it ratchets everything up a level, allowing the story access to much trickier themes.

Nothing depicted in this soap commercial is in any way new, except in that we’ve now seen Stevonnie’s sex and gender written out in so many words, and focused on them slightly. By definition, of course they were always intersex; and the show has always used an unambiguous singular they/them for the character. None of this was was ever unclear, as written and performed. But words are important, and here we finally have them.

The second and more bizarre criticism comes out of a previous point, in which people keep insisting that, well, the character’s identity shouldn’t come down to sci-fi alien symbolic whatever, because all that does is suggest that non-binary and intersex people are somehow fictional. Which just forces me to wonder, Christ, you know. Have you ever read a story before? Do you know how stories work? How metaphors function? (“Spoiler culture” has raised some concerns about literacy, of late.) And even more to the point, do you understand the limits of TV production? Particularly of a children’s cartoon, in the United States?

Sometimes to talk about complex things, or things that it’s unclear one can get away with, one speaks in coded or abstract terms. This is how art works. This is how people tell stories. Stories tend to be About Things, not clinical lists of details to showcase. Metaphors and subtext are a matter of verbs, rather than nouns, allowing conversation to happen and a story to functionally talk about things that matter. Artistic coding is all the more important when the things one wants to talk about aren’t necessarily easy to broach in the environment where the stories are being spun.

Prior to Steven Universe, has there ever been a children’s cartoon with an explicitly non-binary or intersex character before? With a foregrounded gay wedding? Has there ever been a children’s cartoon that basically serves in its entirety as one big honking trans allegory? No, because it’s hard to do. These are things that nobody was allowed to talk about, even around the time that Steven Universe began its run. The rules changed over the course of the show, in part because the show changed the rules, for itself and for everyone else, as to what was acceptable to talk about and how.

It’s so peculiar to me that for the one instance of positive representation that has ever existed, people who don’t have the active context for what it’s talking about or how it’s doing it will tend to sidle in and sniff, and say, well, it’s better that they not have bothered, because of XYZ preconditions I just thought up on the spot.

You know. I’m autistic. I’m genderqueer, I’m ace. I want to sympathize. Like, I recognize that there are tons of misconceptions out there, and for someone on the margins of society it’s easy to get nervous and defensive over things that come off as ambiguous. But nothing’s ever gonna be exactly whatever you’ve got in your head unless you write it yourself. Which, thanks to the exact thing you’re dismissing, may be easier now.

At any rate, when we choose to engage with a piece of media, how about we actually engage? Just, as a general rule of criticism, let’s go with what’s actually in the text, and what it serves to talk about, and how and why. When you project your own expectations, that’s not criticism, because you’re not engaging. What you’re doing is getting ahead of what you assume will be bad will by manifesting your own. And then you get to stand proud while jousting at yourself, allowing your shadow to affirm everything you expect to see in the world.

There’s more in the world than any of us knows. A lot of it is in fact sincere, and constructive, and serves to do good. If you’re gonna suggest ways to do even better, then that’s splendid. But to do that you’re gonna have to actually listen, and then make a commitment to build something new.