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 Myth of the Good

One of the more transgressive messages in Steven Universe is… not obvious in its transgression, and it takes a little setup to explain what’s so important about it. But it’s the notion that got me watching the show in the first place, back when I read about a recent episode.

A thing that people who skirt the surface sometimes criticize about the show is its notion of redemption, and how dangerously simplistic it seems at a glance. But, it’s not actually as simple as all of that. And it’s part of a more complicated discussion.

The more obvious half of the discussion is the one embodied in the redemption narratives that the show often explores. Basically, a big part of the show’s philosophy is that there are no Bad Guys; there are people who think and do destructive things. Usually for a reason.

But the quieter side of that is that likewise, there are no Good Guys. Rather, there are people who you like and trust to behave in ways that help, or at least take effort to avoid hurting, others. This isn’t moral relativism; it’s a pragmatic stance that no one is a monolith.

We are what we feel and we think and we do, and we’re all a bundle of contradictions. Even if we try our best, we’re going to do awful things sometimes, either unintentionally or just because we can’t help ourselves, due to how we’re wired. So, judging people on that is dicey. And people who have a history of harmful actions, that pattern isn’t necessarily set in stone; our actions depend on our pattern of thinking, which is based to a large extent in how we feel and what we expect. It’s all very muddy, and the best we can do is the best we can do.

Most “crime,” if you subscribe to that as a broad social phenomenon, isn’t a matter of bogeymen, of Bad People With A Gun or whatever, out there, waiting to get you. It’s people who you know and generally trust, who feel a destructive impulse and so take advantage of that trust. This nonsense that politicians and pundits always go on about, talking about individual or whole categories of human beings like cartoon villains or saints, talking about “black-on-black” crime as if it meant anything other than everyone nearly always hurts those closest to them—whatever group one might belong to, the statistics are roughly the same, in that all they reflect is the people one tends to know. There are no Good Men with a Gun. Nobody is born with a facial tattoo like that. Every Bad Man with a Gun is a Good Man until he does something Bad.

You can look at patterns of behavior, sure! Gun violence nearly always has precedent. It’s nearly always people (men) who feel wronged by those close to them (women) and decide to get them back, and anyone else who stands in their way while they’re at it. It’s all the same phenomenon. But, the point is, life isn’t so simple that you can put people into these boxes. The best you can do is look at past behavior and its causes, and figure out the wisest form of engagement and the likelihood it may be predictive of future behavior or might be mutable to some extent.

The redemption narratives are the easy part. There’s lots of precedent for stories like that. Every facile action hero extends their (his) hand to the cackling villain at the end of the movie who has never shown an ounce of mercy, to illustrate their superior moral grounding. So many stories are filled with face-turn antiheroes, and rivals turned allies, and all of that. This is familiar ground, even if Steven Universe takes it to an extreme in terms of how committed it can be to the idea. What’s trickier and more upsetting is the opposite of this.

Again, nearly all violence, nearly all abuse, it is going to come from people you know. People you trust. Which the show plows right into, in the middle of season two. I’ve talked before about how, with media analysis of “Cry for Help,” you don’t need to glance at the byline to know the gender of the writer. Somehow, and beyond the obvious I can’t fathom how, cishet men just… don’t get what’s happening here:

I don’t know how you can overlook a line like “those weren’t victories,” or just see the nature of the relationship here and remain so totally oblivious to what this conflict is about. But, there you go, I guess. There are no good guys. There are no bad guys. There’s only what you do. And the people you choose to trust.

I don’t know that I’ve seen another long-form narrative really get in this deep, commit this strongly, to undermining our internal narratives about the Kind of People who hurt or help each other. It’s all of us. It’s every decision we make. And it’s not this gray-moral thing. Abusers are your spouse, your uncle, your babysitter, your sibling, your neighbor, that family friend. They’re the people you let into your life, and so have the opportunity to do damage and feel like they can get away with it. Not everyone, but anyone. Any single decision.

This isn’t a point of paranoia. It’s just, it’s puncturing the myth and the assumptions about who Bad People are; what abuse and violence actually look like, and where it nearly always really comes from—which goes so counter to our entire cultural narrative, and most of our personal expectations, wired as we are to contrast bubbles of in-groups and out-groups, that it’s hard to know where to begin.

It’s this very upsetting truth that drew me into the show, and made me think, basically: holy fuck. There’s a TV show actively talking about this as an ongoing thing. And, it’s a fantasy adventure aimed at kids? This is the thing people have been yammering about on my timeline, all these months?

We tell ourselves these simple fairy tales and we think we live in them. And so much of our cultural discourse is based around these dynamics, that don’t actually map to human reality. It’s revolutionary to stand opposed to such a fundamental and uncorrected error.

Though she developed some nuance and rethought a few assumptions as she went along, Rebecca Sugar originally planned the show as an exercise in reverse escapism: pitch a fantastical premise, but play it for mundane and instead spend all your energy talking about reality—which is basically what the series does: it uses its framework (and its glorious web of metaphor) as an excuse to explore social and psychological and interpersonal dynamics that are very hard to talk about judiciously, and that many shows would go to great lengths to avoid.

In a world built on wish and fantasy like our own, the truth is always a transgressive thing. And what it most often serves to violate is an order of injustice. This is what art can do. This is the goal in life. This is what makes a thing important. And this is what got me.

(Note that all of this also applies to one’s relationship with one’s self. Which is an angle the show also explores in extraordinary detail.)