How Steven Universe Missed Its Most Interesting Story
January 14, 2020 2:30 PM   Subscribe

Steven Universe ended "just as it was getting truly interesting—on the verge of its most fascinating, complex, and important story: that of decolonization, liberation, and healing. By skipping the process of decolonization, liberation, and healing, Steven Universe suggests that the solution to the deep and long-lasting damages of imperialism is benevolence. This conclusion is dangerous in its negligence: It implies that all one need do to stop imperialism is change the leader’s mind and get them to act nice. That all that needs to be done to achieve decolonization is to simply stop and let everyone be happy.

It fails to acknowledge the permanent and generational damages caused by catastrophes of this kind, and the complexities of becoming free from them—an especially disturbing notion given the length and span of the Gem Empire, which no doubt changed the course of entire galaxies’ histories."
posted by stoneweaver (69 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
An interesting piece, but thinking that the most interesting thing about S.U. is colonialism, and not mentioning gender, fusions, etc., is kind of whoosh, IMO.
posted by signal at 3:01 PM on January 14 [33 favorites]


And it's especially odd after reading the author's bio.
posted by signal at 3:01 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]


I really don’t want to suggest that something like SU should be immune from critique (I’m not a fan or anything), and it’s not even that I disagree with the underlying point, but sometimes I wonder if it makes sense to turn this level of Ideological criticism on relatively low-status stories that are actually trying. For if SU qualifies as dangerous, negligent, disturbing, the rest of mainstream media is pretty much Nazis deliberately trying to spread the Black Plague and then hurl earth into the sun, you know? We go so hard after the target we feel we can reach, or be seen by our peers to be reaching.
posted by praemunire at 3:12 PM on January 14 [64 favorites]


I get the sense this piece was written after Steven Universe wrapped up but before Steven Universe Future started, and is only getting published now. Several episodes of Steven Universe Future explicitly explore Steven's successes and failures taking part in the process of decolonization.
posted by arcolz at 3:13 PM on January 14 [36 favorites]


Woo boy. There s always fanfic, y all.
posted by eustatic at 3:14 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Wait, are there not more episodes of Steven Universe Future?!
posted by overglow at 3:18 PM on January 14


Future articles to include exploring how Rainbow Dash fails to conceptualize the intersection of Marxist theology in the pantheon of gender neutrality, glitter and eco-terrorism.
posted by Chuffy at 3:18 PM on January 14 [42 favorites]


Future articles to explore how Rainbow Dash fails to conceptualize the intersection of Marxist theology in the pantheon of gender neutrality, glitter and eco-terrorism.

I would read that! I like when people think about things and then write about them.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 3:21 PM on January 14 [33 favorites]


sometimes I wonder if it makes sense to turn this level of Ideological criticism on relatively low-status stories that are actually trying. For if SU qualifies as dangerous, negligent, disturbing, the rest of mainstream media is pretty much Nazis deliberately trying to spread the Black Plague and then hurl earth into the sun, you know?

If everything else is plague spreading Nazis, am I more likely to be happier with the world if I can get the thing that's trying to try differently, or if I can get one of the Nazis to maybe spread slightly less plague?
posted by PMdixon at 3:23 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]


Like .... this article is not long. It is not some sort of bullet pointed thesis. It is literally a "I would like it if they had told this story" and plenty of people are engaging with that article in most of the places I'm in. It's really interesting to me how here people aren't even engaging with the central questions.

"Were there any survivors? How did the events affect them? After thousands of years of aggressive imperialism, written into their legacy and constructing their entire society, how did the gem species respond? Was there guilt? Remorse? Indignation? What processes did the soldiers have to go through in order to stop? How did gem culture come to confront its own cruelty and crimes?

Think about the many examples of colonization right here on Earth: on Turtle Island, Africa, and Asia, their global, overpowering, and lasting damages—then multiply it by thousands of years and across galaxies."

The question of how decolonization proceeds and how that looks are ones we need to be wrestling with. Fiction is a great way of exploring how those things work so we can expand and stretch our brains around them.
posted by stoneweaver at 3:26 PM on January 14 [32 favorites]


And we specifically have those conversations around media that is already doing a pretty good job. It would be pointless to want to read/watch those stories from creators that we don't trust, who don't think deeply, who don't clearly have a capability of addressing and handling complex subjects. That's not going after "a target" or calling anyone a nazi ffs.
posted by stoneweaver at 3:29 PM on January 14 [15 favorites]


Future articles to include exploring how Rainbow Dash fails to conceptualize the intersection of Marxist theology in the pantheon of gender neutrality, glitter and eco-terrorism.

"We see in Equestria, over and over, how many meteorological events have to be actively managed by the Pegasi. Even the water cycle is actively managed. Considering how important and central agriculture is to Equestrian economy, Rainbow Dash's penchant for napping on the job is can not only be construed to be eco-terrorism, but as a serious economically destabilizing force to Celestia's regime. Twilight Sparkle's inability to address this behavior in her friend, especially post-apotheosis, is a stinging indictment of the nature of friendship itself and..."

--- Excerpt from New Equestrian Order by Discord
posted by Groundhog Week at 3:34 PM on January 14 [21 favorites]


Wait, are there not more episodes of Steven Universe Future?!

I haven't seen anything regarding the length of the season, but it is not over.
posted by yellowbinder at 3:37 PM on January 14 [6 favorites]


Wait, are there not more episodes of Steven Universe Future?!
posted by overglow


There are, and I think we ll get to see them in...3 months to 6 months.

But now that you've asked, this piece can be read as a trauma response from a Steven Universe fan...
posted by eustatic at 3:41 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


The question of how decolonization proceeds and how that looks are ones we need to be wrestling with. Fiction is a great way of exploring how those things work so we can expand and stretch our brains around them.

Agreed on all counts. The only fiction that comes to mind is "Childhoods End' but doesn't seem apropo to this fictional story. Historical referents from earth history (Roman empire) are numerous but seem shy on a real plan to decolonize rather then collapse through neglect and wars. Nice post.
posted by clavdivs at 3:42 PM on January 14


[I want to make a note here to support engaging with the actual content of the link; I think there's room for talking about what the show did get right and its media landscape context, but it'd be better if that was supplemental to rather than in lieu of talking about the stuff the linked article is trying to explore. Taking "Future" into context for that may be an interesting part of that, for folks who are up to date on it, but in any case let's not let riffing or reflexive Yeah But stuff overwhelm the idea of digging in on the actual topic of the post.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 3:43 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]


I think the title you chose and that first sentence is the way I would have framed an entire such article if I were writing it—as a thesis I wanted to read more. But the other comments I quoted I didn’t have to go sieving through the article for or wrenching out of context. At a certain point, you just start wondering about the judgment entailed in our continuing to go after relatively low-prestige productions, often by marginalized creators, as dangerous, etc., when Disney gets away with such garbage. Maybe your pop culture circles do less of it than mine do; mine seem predisposed to something close to lateral aggression.

PMDixon, if we’re talking actual Nazis and actual plague, yeah, I think getting too invested in vigorous complaining about the store that sells food that’s largely healthy but gets a B grade from DOH instead is a mistake. You’re not wrong about wanting them to improve their hygienic practices. But...chains pushing Black Plague!
posted by praemunire at 3:46 PM on January 14 [6 favorites]


An interesting piece, but thinking that the most interesting thing about S.U. is colonialism, and not mentioning gender, fusions, etc., is kind of whoosh, IMO.

And it's especially odd after reading the author's bio.


I'd be inclined to read that as a good indication that the author is pretty familiar with those aspects of Steven Universe and is choosing here to focus on how the story handled this plot line instead.

I'm not familiar with Steven Universe, so I can't say much about the particulars, but I've noticed that, even among nominally social-justice focussed people, the mechanisms and effects of colonialism are treated with a particular air of resignation at their inevitability. It's naturally overwhelmingly white people that project that, but it's surprisingly wide-spread in general, in my experience. I think the resistance that people seem to have with respect to interrogating colonialism is particularly worth looking at in cases where those same people are demonstrably willing to interrogate other axes of oppression, so I'm not sure why the response here is so uncharitable except as a manifestation of the same phenomenon.
posted by invitapriore at 3:51 PM on January 14 [14 favorites]


(I want to be clear that I do not at all think it silly to write about the ideas embedded even in cartoons. Certainly not ones that tackles big issues the way SU does.)
posted by praemunire at 3:52 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


This is a really strange criticism to make considering that SUF is not done and a couple episodes have already touched on these themes. And it's specifically saying that things are more complicated than just changing the leader's mind. I'm thinking of that episode where Steven and Lapis were trying to stop other Lapis' from "terraforming" a new planet (side-note: it should really be called "gemmaforming," because they aren't trying to make these worlds Earth-like). The movie itself makes it clear that there are no happy endings and Steven has a lifetime of stressful work ahead of him to correct the mistakes of the Diamonds.
posted by Edgewise at 3:52 PM on January 14 [17 favorites]


It's an interesting article and I think Steven Universe Future or Steven Universe itself could have told some compelling, enlightening, and difficult stories about what it takes to end a massive totalitarian colonial system that's been around as long as anyone can remember. I do think though that Steven Universe Future does try to address some of the things mentioned as missing by the author. The gems we see at "Little Homeschool" are victims, soldiers, subjects, and rebels. It does deal with the trauma, grief, and anxiety that follows a massive societal upheaval. Every character in the show is trying to find their way in a new world, and how it relates to the more oppressive world they came from.

However, I do think Steven Universe (Future and regular) avoids directly confronting the horrors of colonialism in the text of the show. It does touch on it in ways that are personal to each character, but doesn't do a good job of relating that to the society as a whole. Former soldier Jasper lives by herself and still wants to fight. Two Homeworld gems, Eyeball Ruby and Aquamarine are still trying to perpetuate their personal conflict with Steven. Restored gems try to find a way to live and work in a relatively free society.

But, these stories are all personal and mostly focus on Earth, rather than the Gem Empire as a whole. There isn't really anything you could point to in either series where they try to address what's happened to victims and have there be a reconciliation with the actions of the colonizers. The Diamonds "fix" all the bubbled gems (with lingering mutations) and get to live happily ever after on Homeworld without every having to think about how their actions have affected the galaxy... at least as far as the audience sees.

I am sympathetic with the author's disappointment because Steven Universe has had such a good track record of confronting your own feelings (Here Comes a Thought has gotten me through more than one tough day) about difficult subjects. But, I also think that Steven Universe has never been a show that's tried to tackle societal issues by telling stories on a large scale, and I think that's what the story the author of this piece is asking for would demand. It continues to tell stories that are about the feelings of how individuals relate to the world around them on a smaller scale. Those stories are informed by a univesre recovering from colonialism and war, if not about that recovery.
posted by runcibleshaw at 4:08 PM on January 14 [19 favorites]


MetaFilter: conceptualize the intersection of Marxist theology in the pantheon of gender neutrality, glitter and eco-terrorism.
posted by scruss at 4:25 PM on January 14 [6 favorites]


Yes, runcible. We do have to remember that Steven Universe is designed to be an all-ages show, and it tends to translate its politics into familial metaphors. I imagine that could be done with decolonization, but it would probably require another 5 seasons and it would probably kill Steven's sunny disposition. SUF has taken a different direction, and I think that's fair (but it's also fair for someone to wish the story had played out the way they were most interested in). I don't think Rebecca Sugar owes us anything or has to prove her good intentions--they've done so much already. But it's okay to be disappointed that the show didn't go farther. You can celebrate something and be let down too.

I love the idea of taking on this kind of large-scale project in fanfic, and I don't think it's Rebecca Sugar's responsibility to follow up every possible thread from the rich world she's built. Frankly, I'd be disappointed if we ever found out what Onion is. She's done great work in pushing the boundaries of what an all-ages cartoon can address. It would be interesting to get her take on some of the things outside the scope of the story as she sees it (which is pretty narrowly focused on the main character and his personal growth), so I hope someone asks her a question about it at Comicon or something.
posted by rikschell at 4:25 PM on January 14 [5 favorites]


Hmm, praemunire, I'm not sure where you're getting lateral aggression from? If you read the full article it seems to be pretty positive about Steven Universe in general and genuinely disappointed that we didn't get "a radical vision for building a new reality in our own world, grounded in Steven Universe’s beautiful ethic of care and compassion for everyone" from "a show that has mastered the art of emotional complexity and gradual process, it’s been disheartening to see this part of the story completely dismissed."

I get why you might have missed those paragraphs though! It's easy to feel protective of certain things and have a knee-jerk response that colors your reading of a piece.

Personally I agree with the article in that when I see a series that is so thoughtful on gender, sexuality, nonviolence and mental health, I naturally want it to apply the same deft touch to all its topics. I think the conclusion of the Diamond arc was one place where the metaphor of family matriarch as evil space empress wasn't entirely thought through.

Sugar engages with the idea of empire a little - you can't watch the human zoo episode without thinking about colonialism, and the patronizing way Rose speaks about Greg is a super real and well-written example of biases within relationships. But when it comes time to reckon with Steven's inheritance of that imperial legacy, the story remains on a very personal "they're family" level instead of really grappling with the themes raised earlier in the series.

We never meet any aliens in the series who aren't part of the Gems's space empire, even though it's a huge one that's been there thousands of years, and so therefore we get storylines about how to rehabilitate aggresors that are devoid of any victims.

I read the article not as wholly an indictment but as a challenge: if we're going to use the evil empire trope in the future, how do we think through all the implications? How do we write fantasy narratives that touch on real-world narratives with respect? Why can't we imagine a process of active decolonization that pays real reparations to the people who have been harmed? The Steven Universe team has the skills to tell the story well, and I'd like to live in a universe where they or the next talented team after them tries.
posted by storytam at 4:25 PM on January 14 [15 favorites]


I am a massive and unapologetic SU fan. I think TFA is fair. The points above about Future are legitimate, but the linked article acknowledges Future. The issues are with the big story of decolonization mostly taking place offscreen. Again, huge fan, but this is pretty much my biggest issue too.

Fans can be critical and still love the Things!
posted by sugar and confetti at 4:27 PM on January 14 [11 favorites]


It implies that all one need do to stop imperialism is change the leader’s mind and get them to act nice. That all that needs to be done to achieve decolonization is to simply stop and let everyone be happy.

I'm also not a fan of Steven Universe personally although I watched most of it anyway waiting for it to get good. But I did that because I respected the ideas and the ideals that were embedded in it.

I still feel the need to defend it from this take. I think the story Rebecca Sugar was trying to tell is just much smaller in scope than the alternate story described here. To me it's more like a child's introduction to the idea of a world where benevolence reigns and people are allowed to live in peace. All the other stuff being described is stuff that gets learned about later.

Also it annoys me when people mistake "I would have done this differently" for a critique. It's not actually making an assessment with useful or interesting observations, it's just a statement about something you haven't done. Which is therefore actually a statement about yourself rather than the piece in question.

Another thing that bothers me is saying something is implied as a fact. That you think something is being implied isn't a fact, it's an opinion. You can make the case for your opinion and lots of other people can agree but it still doesn't make it a fact. If the author wants to see a story like the one they described, they should write it.
posted by bleep at 4:30 PM on January 14 [9 favorites]


It's kind of like reading a Child's Illustrated Bible and then wondering why it's not the actual Bible.
posted by bleep at 5:08 PM on January 14


Thank you for sharing this, Stoneweaver. I wonder if the article will be updated to reflect the plot points now represented in the Future show.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 5:35 PM on January 14


I'm just a lay fan of SU but I got the impression that, towards the end of SU's final season the production team was being rushed into closing up the show, which runs counter to Sugar's overall writing style involving very slow and natural character development and worldbuilding. eg, consider how long and meandering Sadie and Lars's relationship was vs how Steven just "talked it out" with White Diamond within the span of a few episodes. I'm assuming that Sugar would have wanted to make a longer and more fulfilling ending but was strapped for time.

Since they did a mini montage of closure scenes at the end, it's difficult for the movie or SU:F to fill those gaps. Don't really understand how SU:F came to be but the fact that it's a separate show instead of a continuation makes me assume there were some contract complications or whatever on the business end of things.

I noticed The Dragon Prince similarly did this "we don't know if we'll get another season so here's The End maybe!" thing. it's kind of a testament to the fact American shows should really strive to have a concise beginning/middle/end instead of stretching out for an unspecified duration.
posted by picklenickle at 5:51 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


If the author wants to see a story like the one they described, they should write it.

I don't think there's anything wrong with disagreeing with the author's interpretation of Steven Universe, but this type of statement is rightfully censured in other discussions about representation in fiction and I don't see why it's acceptable here. Yes, the discussion is about one show in particular and not the full landscape of fiction in general, but that doesn't make this less generally dismissive.
posted by invitapriore at 5:53 PM on January 14 [17 favorites]


Because you can't take something that already exists and say it should have been something else, because that's absurd, it already exists. It's different and fine to say "I noticed this stuff was missing, which is interesting to think about what that would have looked like, or think about why it's not there".
posted by bleep at 6:03 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


I thought that's what the article was doing, though? Like, "oh dang, wouldn't it be so awesome if the Crewniverse gave colonialism, reparations and true societal redemption the same thoughtful treatment as gender, mental health and trauma, kinda sucks that imperialism was the one thing they skipped."
posted by storytam at 6:34 PM on January 14 [5 favorites]


Wow, the defensiveness here is stunning, and I say this as someone who is also a big Steven Universe fan.

I've actually been rather uncomfortable with how Steven had been handling the whole Little Homeworld thing in SUF because so much of it feels imperialistic, in a kind of supposedly-well-meaning "we are the white saviour missionaries here to civilise you" way. Hell the first thing that newly unbubbled gems get is "HELLO COME TO OUR SCHOOL TO CONFORM TO EARTH NORMS" and a lot of propaganda around it, not even a chance to make their own decision. It doesn't really matter that Steven's intentions are ultimately for good, there's still an overarching sense that Steven things he knows best - which is exactly the problem perpetuated by the Diamonds.

There are times in SUF where this gets critiqued, which is great. The episode with Amethyst for example, where he's directly confronted by this (but it still takes him a while to actually internalize it). The Lapises or Jasper saying that he's got nothing to offer them. And the show is currently about him having to deal with "who am I if not a savior". Now he's quit running the school, which I think would ultimately be a good move for him, but he's still got that Savior Syndrome to manage and a very literal inheritence of Pink Diamond's trauma to wrangle.
posted by divabat at 8:55 PM on January 14 [13 favorites]


Moore explores how Steven Universe both deconstructs a colonial paradigm and fails to fully enact a decolonial praxis. On the one hand, this show demonstrates how a colonial matrix of power works to oppress its citizens, especially those who are classified as abnormal, through both physical and psychological violence, revealing how the Diamonds’ supposedly ideal colonial culture is inherently flawed and damaging to Gems of every kind. On the other hand, the show only focuses on how Gem colonization affects Gems, ignoring how a colonial legacy would shape the lives of the humans who were colonized. While deconstructing the violence of colonialism is certainly important, the show fails to center the experiences of colonized subjects and, therefore, to truly engage in radical decolonization.
Moore M.E. (2020) "Off-Color, Off-Center: Decolonizing (in) Steven Universe" Representation in Steven Universe. [springer link]

There's already a paper about this, end of debate.
posted by polymodus at 9:01 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Pretty sure that the point of critiquing things around racism, colonialism, or any ism isn't "you and your media choices are bad and you should feel bad" and when folks react defensively like that's the point, we inadvertently end up with a thread about white people's feelings.
Making space to explore the idea of decolonisation in the context of a fictional universe is really interesting! So many thorny issues have benefited from having people who aren't directly affected process their thoughts with the help of thoughtful treatment in entertainment media, with the result of making folks more comfortable dealing with those issues in the real world. Meanwhile for people who are directly affected, seeing thoughtful representation of that in media is a really huge thing.

I love fiction that explores better futures that we wish we could have. This article invokes the speculative reality where Steven Universe explores the speculative reality where (etc)....
posted by quacks like a duck at 9:12 PM on January 14 [9 favorites]


I feel like there still could be room for touching on these issues via comics or even a novel series!
posted by emjaybee at 9:23 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


I'm just wondering when the "Rebecca Sugar is not your Bitch" song will come out.
posted by happyroach at 10:05 PM on January 14


How is "hey I wished this got covered in the series because it seemed like such a missed opportunity and I think they could have done it well" somehow "making Rebecca Sugar your bitch"?

There are so, so many critiques along these lines targeted at all kinds of pop culture. Steven Universe, even with its subject matter and diverse crew, is a mainstream production since it's on Cartoon Network. Why is it suddenly weird/demanding/"whoosh" when these critiques is levied at Steven Universe?
posted by divabat at 10:19 PM on January 14 [6 favorites]


Why is it fair to say George Martin isn't your bitch and not Rebecca Sugar?

I mean she Is a soft target and all, but still.
posted by happyroach at 11:00 PM on January 14


[I kinda feel like trying to sideload "there was this other memey thing in fandom elsewhere" into the conversation as if everyone knows what everyone else is tersely referencing isn't gonna work out well. Please let that "x isn't your bitch" thing drop.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:06 PM on January 14 [5 favorites]


thank you cortex, I don't actually know this meme at all and only know of the phrase in a more general sense, so the comments just confuse me. The fact that this thread in general has been full of defensiveness doesn't help.
posted by divabat at 11:10 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


SU critiques are interesting and fraught because on the one hand SU is part of a business that produces pleasant confections while on the other it is also a work of art that's quite outspoken about social justice themes. These two aspects serve different masters: making money vs. bettering the world. But they are not wholly separate. They are connected in complicated ways that loop back on themselves. Sometimes they are congruent, as when increased audience demand for stories that explicitly address social justice themes affords the capital expenditure to produce those stories. But sometimes they are in conflict; sometimes bettering the world doesn't make money.

In my mind it's interesting without a doubt to challenge SU on the seriousness of its engagement with themes of colonization & oppression, precisely because that's where the series staked a claim. But I think it's important to do so based on the recognition that SU is also a product, produced by a company that makes pleasant confections. To believe that such a product should or even could offer "a radical vision for building a new reality in our own world", as the linked piece faults SU for not doing, I think overestimates the role & function of products in bettering the world, in particular that of a pleasant confection like a cartoon. It's like faulting a cupcake for not acknowledging the barbaric history of sugar.
posted by dmh at 12:04 AM on January 15 [3 favorites]


That is the sort of white, fragile, colonialist rationalization would say to justify things being impossible, and to deny an area the possibility of radical subversion in face of capital, and finally, to deny the lived experiences of post-colonial children like myself who had to make do with, like, GI Joe and Kamen Rider.

It is teleological reasoning to stipulate a function for a cartoon (based on market-ideological values) and then conclude that such a product has no obligation to attain an actualized ethics. It is essentially a conservative mode of thought that forecloses any notion of radicalism.
posted by polymodus at 12:42 AM on January 15 [10 favorites]


Great article. She touches on so many interesting themes that we could have seen. I did find Steven as white saviour type kind of irritating. I would love to see a work that fully explores decolonization.
posted by daybeforetheday at 2:27 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]


I'm hopeful SU Future will go there. In some ways, my stock answer when people say oh cartoons can't do anything that complex remains the same: Avatar! Which did deal with some aspects of colonialism. Still, the constraints of being all-ages is not the same I'd argue as being a story first about family and intergenerational trauma over colonialism. Sugar made a deliberate decision to sidestep human racial issues and keep gender politics and misogyny which shows sharply when the crystel gem vs human metaphors fray. Steven isn't biracial the way a human with mixed ethnicties is, he's half alien-Diamond which is a very different thing. I get why for storytelling reasons Sugar chose that and I appreciate the diverse generally tranquil alternate history Earth in the SU but it falls apart for racial issues any closer than a vague handwave.

Incidentally, i have bought slightly more expensive sugar because it was fairtrade union made after reading about the sugar fields via Austen biographies where sugar and sweet treats were refused as a protest. So sugar marketing and awareness of the history of it can be faulted IMO and has a specific history of protest against slavery and exploitation. Not a great example.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 2:41 AM on January 15


Considering that children seem to be some of the most effective and well networked change agents at the moment, disregarding media as trivial because it's aimed at kids might be missing a trick. Maybe the young people should dismiss it as trivial because it was written by adults...
posted by quacks like a duck at 4:11 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]


That is the sort of white, fragile, colonialist rationalization

You do realize I'm neither white, nor fragile, nor a colonial? Just so you know.

It is teleological reasoning to stipulate a function for a cartoon

Of course it is. People create things for a reason. Cartoons don't just emanate out of thin air. They get made for a purpose, to serve a variety of goals. In the case of SU, one of those goals is to generate cashflows & hopefully profits for Cartoon Network and its parent company, Warner Bros.

and then conclude that such a product has no obligation to attain an actualized ethics. It is essentially a conservative mode of thought that forecloses any notion of radicalism

I don't think we should expect salvation from the evils of capitalism from a commercial product, no, much less a cartoon that's produced to profit WarnerBros.

To me a radical perspective is one that takes seriously that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism and acknowledges that some things, indeed, can't come about within a capitalist, for-profit framework.
posted by dmh at 5:02 AM on January 15 [8 favorites]


I don't know that it missed it, it's just that stories about colonization and Empire are very, very hard to tell on the scale that SU is working on.

It's always been a Steven Scale show - you only know what he knows, see the things he sees, and interacts with Beach City, the Gems and the Empire from his perspective. Most recently in SUF is the episode Little Graduation, where a group of Homeschool Gems complete their study and ready themselves to leave. It ties up a few longer threads from SU itself, and the big changes explicitly happen offscreen - a couple splits up amicably after talking things through offscreen, and Steven is surprised to learn that they've had that talk. Because it's private, between them, without Steven involved, so it happens out of our awareness too. It's a big plot point and it was a bit of a thing in fandom when it happened, but it sort of illustrates for me how hard it is to talk about Big Ideas when your scale itself is so small. He wasn't there, so we can't see it.

I mean we never see the Empire. We see the Earth colony, and what was planned for us, and we see Homeworld, one other colony (from its moon) and the Zoo, and that's it. Because that's all Steven sees. And most of that happened to him when he was a child, and he's still processing that. SUF has got heavy themes of Steven coming to terms with his own trauma - the trauma of being the simultaneously son of the Empire and a product of a vassal state, the trauma of being Rose Quartz's son, the trauma of spending his entire adolescence being under a near constant state of stress.

There's not a lot of easy ways to tell those stories in a way that fits that over-Steven's-Shoulder framing the whole series has used. SUF is only like, ten episodes in and they've tackled a fair bit of it, given we're talking ten minute episodes - the business with the Lapises and Bluebird mentioned upthread, and his discussions with Amethyst about how maybe he's not the best one to be handing out advice about how Gems should live. By where we are now in the airing schedule we're looking at a very traumatized kid whose just had the pressure taken off, and how he copes decompressing. He's not running Homeschool or the Empire, he wasn't involved in setting up the empire so he's not dismantling it. He's got small examples, in the scope of the show, of the damage that does - and the Earth itself is one of those examples. The entire major arc of the show about preventing Homeworld from re-establishing their colony or destroying it *is* a colonial story. Earth was invaded. We were a colony. Things were pretty ugly and people were killed - we just don't see it, because Steven wasn't around then. We get eerie shots of Kindergartens and the map of the post-colony hollowed out Earth Peridot shows them at the moon base. That's a close as we can get to it, because this is ultimately Steven Universe, a show about him, and what he sees.

I would love to see a much deeper, wider, broader story setting in this universe, because I have a superfan's list of questions and things I'd love to see, from tiny stuff like who discovered the Pebbles, do the other Diamonds have their own, what do Gems on Homeworld even do with their time, to big things like who made White Diamond in the first place, and why don't we see other life? The series has a throwaway line in Jungle Moon where Yellow Diamond makes an offhand comment about organic life making it hard to start the colony - I mean fucking hell! There's more organic life in the universe that's capable of putting up a fight? Is is sentient? Is it friendly? How does that work with the other, Gem based life? Are there *other* forms of life out there besides meat and hard light?

I mean there's room for a *lot* of stories here. I'd love to see one about decolonisation too, besides the tidbits and traces the Crewniverse have worked in. Maybe we'll see more of the theme set up so far. I do hope so. I'd also be fine with Steven getting some damn therapy too, to be honest.
posted by Jilder at 5:11 AM on January 15 [10 favorites]


I'm assuming that Sugar would have wanted to make a longer and more fulfilling ending but was strapped for time.

I fully agree with this and I've been wondering why I haven't heard more people say it.

Wow, the defensiveness here is stunning, and I say this as someone who is also a big Steven Universe fan.

You call it "defensiveness," I call it "disagreement."
posted by Edgewise at 7:07 AM on January 15 [4 favorites]


> divabat: Wow, the defensiveness here is stunning, and I say this as someone who is also a big Steven Universe fan.

> Edgewise: You call it "defensiveness," I call it "disagreement."

There is this thing that I see happening often in discussions about media, especially discussions about media that is generally doing interesting work in terms of speaking to a progressive ideology. I saw it a lot most recently with Watchmen.

Someone writes a thoughtful critique of a work they clearly understand and respect. This is seen by some as HATING, CANCELLING, or TRASHING, while other fans of the work question that critique with equally thoughtful responses. This is seen by some as DEFENSIVE, FANNISH, or FRAGILITY. You can imagine which voices generally fill up the space. I think it is important to open up space for folks to thoughtfully and respectfully disagree about media and discuss those disagreements. To be clear, I am not calling for "civility" or anything like that - thoughtful discussion can be heated, and reactionary trash-talking can be calm and collected. I'm not a fan of Steven Universe, but I love reading stuff like this, and I also love reading the discussions on MetaFilter about it.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:52 AM on January 15 [8 favorites]


In the case of SU, one of those goals is to generate cashflows & hopefully profits for Cartoon Network and its parent company, Warner Bros.

Which is a nice way to backpedal from your argument. It centers the teleology on the intentions of capital and yet pretends that in a social world, only capital gets to dictate goals.

To me a radical perspective is one that takes seriously that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism and acknowledges that some things, indeed, can't come about within a capitalist, for-profit framework.

A radical position is one that gets to the root of issues. Repeating talking points like "there is no ethical consumption under capitalism" is one that leaves progressive stances unexamined. It is Bernie-bro logic; it is tankie-logic. They are not radicals because they don't know any theory; they don't know about immanence or the Marxist legacy that their extremist activism has left themselves disconnected from. Theory-like white lies are not radical. Being radical is knowing that we don't know shit.

The very rhetoric of acknowledging that some things aren't possible is itself that takes the paradoxical position of hedging while making a global truth. There's nothing radical about taking the positionality of a truism.

You do realize I'm neither white, nor fragile, nor a colonial? Just so you know.

Your argument was a fragile one that colonialist types use. Speaking as a PoC immigrant of multiple instances of colonization, in my experience some of the most problematic rhetorical excesses are when fellows use the same language of the oppressors in insensitive ways.
posted by polymodus at 1:27 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


polymodus, can you help me understand what it means in practice for a cartoon to have an ethical obligation, in the sense of what actions by whom constitute meeting that obligation?
posted by PMdixon at 2:25 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I think it's fair enough for someone to write a piece about how you would have liked something even more if it had X -- though I'm not sure that a children's cartoon is the place to look for a deep systematic exploration of the damage of colonialism, and SUF seems already engaging with it on the personal experience of a child level you'd expect -- but when people start claiming that there's an ethical obligation to do it exactly the way they'd like my eyebrows start to go up.
posted by tavella at 2:44 PM on January 15 [5 favorites]


Yeah, SU and the Crewniverse owe us fans nothing. It's a really toxic part of fandom to start demanding that shows do X or Y and that they're obligated out of ethics or the desire of the fandom.

Especially since SU is one of the best kids' shows for representation - the characters are racially and ethnically diverse. People have wide backgrounds without ever being caricatures or Very Special Episode material where they show up, be ethnic and leave, they have multiple modes of relationships, they demonstrate healthy and unhealthy ways of interaction, and they manage to talk about sexuality and gender in a way that is both easy for kids to parse and that insulates the discussion from that horrible, persistent belief that talking about queer issues - even as basic as "some people are gay" - is the same as sexualizing children. I mean this show has covered some heavy shit, deftly and respectfully. If you want to start banging on about ethical obligations this show has gone above and beyond what most kids programming does. It's not negligent because it hasn't covered everything it could have.

Saying you'd have liked to see more story about decolonisation is totally reasonable. Insisting the show has a moral obligation to tell that story in a way you want puts you on par with people who are pissy there's no Amedot content or that Steven and Connie haven't gotten married yet.
posted by Jilder at 3:42 PM on January 15 [10 favorites]


I have a fear that The Dragon Prince is going to do this, though they did just do that thing (get the leader to change their mind) and the creators say there's still 4 seasons of story left, so... hoping for a bit more "real" feeling take from that.
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 7:18 PM on January 15


So, Release the Subcomandante Marcos Cut?
posted by eustatic at 3:52 AM on January 16


I feel like I should give this author the benefit of the doubt, and realize that their editor probably cut all of their evidence for the central claim out of the piece, because it's so short, given the sweeping, extraordinary claim(s). Also, the editor is the one writing the overly dramatic headline, like its her job, and we can't fault the author for that.

I also feel like the author is targeting the creative team in both a vague and yet an oddly personal way, that, again, is probably the product of having to cut the article for length. The article shoves all of the agents operating to produce the show into a single, auteur-theory borg subject (hence my "Release the X Cut" Joke, sorry about that), ideally subject to abstract, grad-student-style political suasion against creating a similar show in the future.

As if the fantasy show auteur would have succeeded, but only if they had ascribed to a particular theory of Marxism-Leninism (revisionist), or a particular sect of gnostic christianity.

Which feels weird, because I think all of the creators of this show are younger, they still live, and are likely going to produce more shows, and likely together. I think that is why people are bringing up the business case end of things. But the article talks about them in the past tense, and the show is ongoing? It's jarring. It's another thing that makes the article read like a trauma response, the catastrophism, the implication that all is lost, almost as if all of the creative team has passed away after having ascribed to the incorrect doctrine, and having been bitten by a moose.

As nerd fans, we may know that (spoiler?) the voice actor for Steven is moving on to other creative projects, which makes a show that almost solely revolves around the emotional maturation of that titular character difficult to continue. That, and the dramatic release schedule of the show, do tend toward drama, even while the show is in the middle of exploring the themes of the article. We can see the end is nigh, and we are breaking up, the article seeks to break up with the show first.

The fourth thing that seems to have lead to the failure of the article is that, like people were writing, the article doesn't seem to have been written from someone who has watched the show closely (although none of us have seen the climatic episodes, so you could argue that no one is able to read the show closely).

The White Diamond character, which is the main bit of evidence in the article, has been foreshadowed as a major villain in the (very dark, in my opinion) opening sequence; it's odd to read an article that seems to ignore the new opening sequence. So, I agree, the article comes off as telling us more about the author than about the show.

I've been thinking about the premise of the article, and I think the show is currently exploring the personal empathic fallout of Steven as the Era 3 Diamond Authority of the Universe. If that is true, of course the show isn't showing decolonization, because the premise is that Steven is now swiftly become the Empire's colonial administrator, if not the Emperor, and that is p r o b l e m a t i c. Cue funny cactus frankenstein-monsters.

But even if we all judge the show as a failure in the end, and nebulously resent the creative team, perhaps we can agree on a collective desire for an "Off-Colors" space pirate show exploring the decolonization of the universe, including the themes proposed in the article? The dashing adventures of our dispossessed space comrades, as they take their pain, love, and struggle across the stars?

That could, at least get around the problem of the departure of Mr Calliston from the creative auteur-borg.
posted by eustatic at 8:19 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Insisting the show has a moral obligation to tell that story in a way you want puts you on par with people who are pissy there's no Amedot content or that Steven and Connie haven't gotten married yet.

Do you really think this is the case? Honest question—is there no such thing as a moral or ethical obligation to tell certain stories in certain ways? Like, if I were writing fiction about Trump’s presidency (for example) that didn’t include any of his racist or sexist actions at all, you’d view that as ethically neutral and complaints about it as equivalent to complaints about preferred shipping pairs?
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 1:10 PM on January 16


Like, if I were writing fiction about Trump’s presidency

oh man, you went and did a nu-godwin
posted by sugar and confetti at 6:12 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


Steven Universe is Rebecca Sugar's story. There can only be one way for the story to play out. It is hard enough writing ANY story without having to second guess it and figure out a way to get it out that SOMEONE won't think is done badly, or mishandled, or problematic in some way, or missing an opportunity. Unexamined problems and biases are a bitch, y'all, everyone has them, and it's amazing SU's done what it has with their apparent relative absense.

A story can bring you good messages, and a story can bring you bad messages. But the failure to deliver a specific good message IS NOT IN ITSELF A BAD MESSAGE.

If Steven Universe decided to make the rest of the show about Steven playing video games that would be valid and I would support her in that. Hey, I love townie episodes! But whatever wonders, and there's been many, that Steven Universe has brought, I will not be disappointed if Rebecca Sugar doesn't produce wonders+1. That is all--JHarris out.
posted by JHarris at 9:28 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Do you really think this is the case? Honest question—is there no such thing as a moral or ethical obligation to tell certain stories in certain ways? Like, if I were writing fiction about Trump’s presidency (for example) that didn’t include any of his racist or sexist actions at all, you’d view that as ethically neutral and complaints about it as equivalent to complaints about preferred shipping pairs?

I am talking about specifically about SU. We have people complaining there's not enough talk about the bleak aftermath of colonization in a show aimed at little children between 8 and 15.

And we're talking about clear fiction. It's an animated show about sentient space rocks.

You do an animated space rock show about the Trump presidency you can make him a rocket farting muscular Slab of Orange Concrete who discovers a cure for cancer cleaning his ears one day and it'll be on par with what I'm talking about here.
posted by Jilder at 2:40 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


But the failure to deliver a specific good message IS NOT IN ITSELF A BAD MESSAGE.

I haven't seen the show, so I have no opinion on it at all, but the question being raised isn't just about an absence of message rather it is that in the opinion of the author of the article the show has raised the issue of colonization and hasn't dealt with it seriously enough (thus far). That can be a real problem as it is exactly that which can help perpetuate flawed ideology or the values of the status quo sometimes to the point of continued harm. Media had long ignored or denigrated women and minorities in the guise of supporting norms, those values are picked up by children and become the basis of their understanding of how the world works or should work.

While it is true most of us may well have unexamined biases which we also pass on through casual reference to harmful ideas or just in ignoring problems that we ourselves don't face directly, having someone point those blind spots out isn't the bigger issue and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand for not being the point of what we are trying to say. A show can be good without being perfect and pointing out where it may fall short doesn't necessarily need to detract from the things it succeeds at. It only means this too is important and deserves notice and consideration so we and the show can learn and hopefully improve.

Ignoring problematic values, if they are indeed in the show, for the sake of not wanting to potentially lessen one's own pleasure, even by the slightest bit, carries a value of its own that I'd suggest isn't especially commendable.
posted by gusottertrout at 4:16 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


(Apologies if I am not tackling your response directly. For some reason I find your comment difficult to parse.)

rather it is that in the opinion of the author of the article the show has raised the issue of colonization and hasn't dealt with it seriously enough (thus far),

You haven't seen the show, as you said. The Diamond Authority in the show is an empire, but it doesn't carry the same baggage as real-world empires. We never meet other cultures the Diamonds have supposedly subjugated; the Gem Empire basically destroyed planets utterly to create their colonies, but they were uninhabited except by creatures of animal-level intelligence. Word from the creators, I seem to remember hearing, is that Earth people were the first other intelligent race gems had encountered.

Because of this, it would actually be difficult for the show, as it is designed, to address those issues. I would agree that these issues would be great to tackle, somewhere, but as someone who has seen every episode and indeed written some Fanfare posts about it, I don't think Steven Universe is the show to do it.

The upsetting thing, however, is that the show has done a huge number of other things very very well, some arguably better than any other show on television. To say it's missed its most interesting story is to dismiss all of those things. Your phrase, "Media had long ignored or denigrated women and minorities in the guise of supporting norms," is ironic, as the show is incredibly progressive in that area and others.

The show isn't perfect, but it did get made. I don't think a perfect show is possible, but if it is, it would still have to make it through the maze of appeasing network bosses to air. That Steven Universe did as it is is outright amazing.
posted by JHarris at 11:14 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


Your phrase, "Media had long ignored or denigrated women and minorities in the guise of supporting norms," is ironic, as the show is incredibly progressive in that area and others.

Oh, it isn't ironic, it was purposeful. I'm familiar with the show and what people say and love about it, which is so much of the progressive attitudes it provides. That points to the difficulty in claiming concerns about colonialism aren't valid due to the fantastic nature of the show, while also claiming that the progressive attitudes about gender and race are important under that same fantastic setting. I have no opinion on the merits of the specific claims the author makes, but the nature of those concerns should be fit to the same concept of analogy to the real world as any other within the show since that's how we understand fictions, by use of some reference to the real.

I won't pursue the issue any further since I can't speak to the validity of the concerns and have no problem with people addressing those as they see fit, I just was uncomfortable with the idea that those concerns could be dismissed for the show being fantastic or only for children, as if kids are going to read the article anyway or adults aren't obviously fans as well. From what I know of the show it seems likely that Rebecca Sugar would listen to thoughtful criticism and consider it for future use even if she has already planned out things otherwise this time, which would be a pretty good way to go I'd think. Criticism doesn't have to be damning after all, it can be helpful, as I can personally vouch for from being on this site.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:48 AM on January 17


oh man, you went and did a nu-godwin

Colonialism is so much worse than Trump that it’s more of an inverse Godwin, don’t you think?
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:18 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


And we're talking about clear fiction. It's an animated show about sentient space rocks.

I see, thanks. I think this is a really interesting distinction—to some extent, I really agree that our standards should be much lower for shows that don’t represent the current world. But at the same time, I can’t shake the idea that humans are so good at learning from stories that they have moral weight, even if they’re clearly fictional. I will keep thinking about this. Thanks for your thoughts!
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:23 PM on January 17


That points to the difficulty in claiming concerns about colonialism aren't valid

This is what's frustrating. It's not that concerns about colonialism aren't valid, it's that the article isn't dealing with how Steven Universe comments on colonialism. Instead, because the show isn't about colonialism as the author envisions, the show isn't dealing with colonialism, and is a failure?

Why is the author the only one to determine how a show can comment on colonialism?
posted by eustatic at 12:57 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


That points to the difficulty in claiming concerns about colonialism aren't valid due to the fantastic nature of the show, while also claiming that the progressive attitudes about gender and race are important under that same fantastic setting.

Well that doesn't reply to my comment because I myself never made that claim. I would definitely suggest watching the show though. It might help clarify some things about it. (and its like rlly good and you might love it)
posted by JHarris at 5:33 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Yeah I think the minimum bar here for commenting is having read the link and watched a non-zero amount of the actual show.

Like, it does touch on colonialism. It's not elided in favour of gender stuff. It's mentioned a bit here and there, and a bit more in SUF, it's just not the key focus in the way the relationship stuff - especially the relationship stuff around the titular character -are.
posted by Jilder at 2:22 AM on January 18


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