(Turn and face the strange)
–Changes, David Bowie
Why don’t you let yourself just be somewhere different.
Whoa, why don’t you let yourself just be whoever you are.
–Be Wherever You Are, Rebecca Sugar
To be frank I have often considered myself more of a fan of We Bare Bears. Growing up I didn’t have a brother, I was blessed with a sister who would frequently whoop my ass, and so watching the show there’s a nice opportunity to watch a relationship I never had. That and I love Ice Bear, his monotones are the stuff of genius. As for my wife her favorite Cartoon Network show is still The Amazing World of Gumball. It’s incredible to see how a show riddled with so many smart jokes that range in satire of government bureaucracy to economic strategies retail outlets employ in order to sucker people into impulse buying. Along with these shows we also enjoy watching Adventure Time, Uncle Grandpa (at least I do), and even Clarence. Let’s not talk about Teen Titans Go! however, it’s still too soon.
It may seem odd at first that a man in his late twenties enjoys cartoons designed for children and young adults, but I can assure you there’s a harmless albeit pathetic explanation for this: my wife and I are often out of the house and so we leave the television on for the pets. It may seem ridiculous but since we were in school most of the day, and now entering “the real world” whatever that is, we weren’t comfortable just leaving the pets in the dark of the house with no noise. My Huckleberry is a bit of a weenie and I wanted to make sure he felt like someone was still there and I don’t have the heart to leave FOX News on for him. Sometimes it would be PBS, other times it was CNN, but after a while the go-to channel was Cartoon Network because…well, there it was. In my madder moments I would imagine the pets asking me to leave on Cartoon Network because they wanted to watch Adventure Time, but that’s revealing information my wife will need for the committal. After a while we would come home, either together or separately and over time we found that, after a long day at work and school, it was nice to just sit down and watch an episode of Gumball or Clarence. The shows were designed for kids, but the humor was often smart in these shows and so they became a staple. One show in particular however I resisted for reasons I honestly don’t know.
Steven Universe, for those unfamiliar with the show, is rather Queer is almost every sense of the term. I won’t be the first person writing on a blog that has observed this, and I surely won’t be the last, but recently I began reading J. Jack Halberstam’s book Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal and so looking at Steven Universe and my recent upsurge in watching the show it seemed like a good time to throw my hat into the ring if I can use an over-used yet still effective visual metaphor.
Steven Universe is about a young boy growing up in a small town on the edge of the ocean called Beach City. It has a donut shop, the local blogger/conspiracy theorist, a group of trendy teenagers resisting the fact that they’re going to wind up working and living mundane lives in the city when they get older, and at the very edge of town live a group of outcasts by the name of The Crystal Gems. Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl are three survivors of an ancient war between a civilization known as Gems. Gems are anthropomorphic feminine humanoids that are, in the most basic explanation possible, rocks. A Gem’s main body is a single gem that contains their spirit, energy, and soul and from it they are able to manifest a physical body which assumes different personalities depending on the gem which can run from pearls, amethysts, diamonds, rubies, paradot, lapis lazuli, quartz, jasper, etc. and within this society is a rigid class system which assigns “roles” to gems given their stone. The Crystal Gems are the last of a rebellion army that tried to fight this system and their former leader, a gem known as Rose Quartz but often referred to as “Rose,” has been remade after falling in love with a young human named Greg Universe. Steven is their “son,” but he’s also Rose for on his stomach he bears her quartz. The show then, is about the Crystal Gems raising Steven along with Greg and often encountering gems from the Home World who are in constant effort trying to defeat them.
The reader may wonder where the Queerness comes into play, and I have to start first with the most obvious example of the character Garnet who is in fact a “fusion” of two smaller gems named Ruby and Sapphire. Now it’s important to clarify the misinterpretation, that many casual viewers including myself early on made about what “fusion” actually is. The Gems in Steven Universe, while they don’t possess any kind of sex, do exhibit feminine gender presentations and even use female pro-nouns when referring themselves or others. This by itself wouldn’t be so terribly interesting since we’re living in a period of Third-Wave Feminism and so seeing more and more female representation in cartoons isn’t that shocking. It’s refreshing and fun to watch, but not necessarily shocking. Many have objected to Steven Universe however for the show relies on Garnet as well as other gems “fusing” which many see as sex, when watching the show regularly clearly demonstrates something far more important.
Fusion is not sex, but rather a kind of energy relationship.
To give the best explanation I can I have to go to chemistry. I tutored biology for four years, married a biologist, my best friend is a biochemist, and through these regular interactions I learned a bit about chemistry particularly about chemical bonds. What my friends, wife, teachers, and eventually I would stress to students was that chemical bonds, that is bonds between the various elements that exist in nature, were not physical objects. Many people would show bonding by holding hands, but what I eventually learned was that that visual didn’t actually work. Chemical bonds were described as “energy relationships” in which the elements would remain connected through the electromagnetics of the bond, and while there was nothing physical holding them together, there was still energy drawing them towards one another.
This to me is the best way to explain “fusion” in Steven Universe for it’s clear that the creator of the show, Rebecca Sugar, wants to introduce young kids to the idea of queer relationships and queer families.
Recently at San Diego Comic-Con Sugar came-out as bisexual to an adoring crowd:
These things have so much to do with who you are, and there’s this idea that these are themes that should not be shared with kids, but everyone shares stories about love and attraction with kids. So many stories for kids are about love, and it really makes a difference to hear stories about how someone like you can be loved and if you don’t hear those stories it will change who you are. It’s very important to me that we speak to kids about consent and we speak to kids about identity and that we speak to kids about so much. I want to feel like I exist and I want everyone else who wants to feel that way to feel that way too.
It might just be because of the region I grew up but this has been seen by some as a radical approach, and while some parents have tried to make the argument that kids should wait until they’re older Sugar’s response has both tact and wisdom:
“You can’t wait until kids have grown up to let them know that queer people exist. There’s this idea that that is something that should only be discussed with adults — that is completely wrong. If you wait to tell queer youth that it matters how they feel or that they are even a person, then it’s going to be too late!”
The first person I ever came out to was a transgender man. I use the word “man” loosely because they confessed to me later on that my use of the word “man,” “dude,” “sir,” and “he” made them uncomfortable, the argument being that, while they understood it was hardwired Southern gentility on my part and not an effort to write the narrative of their life, it was still an act of “gendering” them which felt far more nuanced and personal. There are some that might immediately ask “well dude is it really that important,” but I try to avoid being an asshole to the best of my ability and so when somebody tells me they don’t like something I try to avoid doing it. They became J—- instead. I’ve censored their name because I don’t wish to “out” them. J—- remains such a crucial part of my life, not just because he was the first person I came out to as Bi, but because he introduced me to Jack Halberstam.
I’ve mentioned before, some would say ad nauseum, that I took a Queer Theory course in graduate school and while I read Bersani, Sedgewick, Butler, and Foucault, Halberstam was an entirely different animal, and in fact I originally had no real intention of reading their work. Before one of our meetings J—- showed me the book Gaga Feminism and encouraged me to read it when I could, but whenever people tell me I should read a book it’s like placing a letter in a mass mail box. I’ll eventually get to it, but it’s going to be buried beneath dozens of other suggestions, considerations, and recommendations. After reading the first half of Female Masculinity however I was hooked and I realized Halberstam was not only an important Queer theorist, they were also someone that had a unique perspective into multiple areas of culture.
And its Lady Gaga who provides the working model.
Halberstam argues in the first chapter of their book that Lady Gaga’s stage performance provides a fascinating new platform for a new kind of feminism:
Gaga feminism proposes that we look more closely at heterosexuality, not simply to blame it for the continued imbalance of the sexes but to find in its collapse new modes of intimate relation. And this form of feminism actually imagines that men as well as women will feel liberated by the possibilities that the end of heterosexuality and the end of normal create. (22).
This quote is perfectly functional for an opening thesis, and while I understand Halberstam’s point, I feel genuinely that the passage that follows it lays out a far clearer message of what their creative and intellectual goals are:
But…what if we incorporate all the macro changes that we have experienced in a few short decades into the everyday? What if we start noticing that the families in which children grow up are far different from the families in which many of us were raised, and that those changes have often been for the better? The claustrophobias of the nuclear family was formerly only alleviated by more family, extended family, by cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. But now, children are apt to have many adults in their life, adults, moreover, to whom they are not even related. […] What would happen if we actually began to incorporate this version of the family into our mainstream representations? (22-23).
Growing up I was raised in what is often referred to as a “nuclear family unit” and this structure is made up of the characters of father, mother, and two children usually of different sexes. This working model of the family is the stuff of 1950s white suburbia and came to embody the cultural consciousness in television programs like Leave it to Beaver and also in later shows like Happy Days, The Simpsons, and Boy Meets World. Even animated television programs like Doug and Rugrats growing up would rely on fact that the nuclear family was the standard unit that made up the family of America, and while most mainstream films and television continue this model for fear of offending or upsetting the heterosexual “majority,” Halberstam’s analysis does beg the question: is the nuclear family still “the norm?”
For my own part I’ll say no because growing up I watched many Robin William’s movies, one of which was Mrs. Doubtfire. On a small note I watched this movie and wept on the night I heard that Robin Williams had died, but then again who didn’t? The film was unique for the fact that it freely dealt with the topic of divorce, and while the film does rely on heterosexual relationships for it’s “norm,” the final lines of the film do seem to echo the sentiment of Halberstam’s questions:
Mrs. Doubtfire: [reading a letter] “Dear Mrs. Doubtfire, two months ago, my mom and dad decided to separate. Now they live in different houses. My brother Andrew says that we aren’t to be a family anymore. Is this true? Did I lose my family? Is there anything I can do to get my parents back together? Sincerely, Katie McCormick.” Oh, my dear Katie. You know, some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mummies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. And if they don’t, don’t blame yourself. Just because they don’t love each other anymore, doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. There are all sorts of different families, Katie. Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy, or two families. And some children live with their uncle or aunt. Some live with their grandparents, and some children live with foster parents. And some live in separate homes, in separate neighborhoods, in different areas of the country – and they may not see each other for days, or weeks, months… even years at a time. But if there’s love, dear… those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever. All my love to you, poppet, you’re going to be all right… bye-bye.
Throughout Gaga Feminism Jack Halberstam cites the examples of contemporary films noting how heterosexuality is often painted as “the norm” or ideal relationship model for people living in contemporary society, but as Mrs. Doubtfire, Halberstam, and Steven Universe have demonstrated that particular model is not only not always efficient, sometimes it just doesn’t work for everyone and so different family models emerge. This is not to suggest that heterosexual people are doomed to suffer unnecessarily in their relationships and that only Queer people will find happiness. While I am bisexual, I married a woman because I loved her and so far it’s not only worked, it’s given me what I needed psychologically, philosophically, personally, etc. My success in the heteronormative model of relationship however should never be looked upon as “the norm” because my wife and I are far too odd to ever be called normal (just to put it in perspective I’m an atheist who spends most of his time reading and talking to himself and my wife reveres “Ceiling Cat” …Google it).
To be honest, having finished Gaga Feminism now I recognize some flaws, or perhaps just perceive some, in Halberstam’s final answer to the flaws and weaknesses in the marriage narrative, but looking back to Steven Universe there is one point Halberstam notes that is pressingly relevant:
Marriage pits the family and the couple against everyone else; alternative intimacies stretch connections between people and across neighborhoods like invisible webs, and they bind us to one another in ways that foster communication, responsibility, and generosity. (110-1).
Steven Universe is an odd and wonderful show because it offers a chance to see a side of the world that has, up to this point, largely been ignored by mainstream cartoons: the lives and relationships of queer women. I recognize that technically the gems are not women in the sense that human beings are women, but female humanoids interacting and forming homo-social, homo-erotic bonds is enough of a political statement to argue that the characters are at least queer. In that past cartoons have afforded only minimal access to queer men and women, and often their sexuality is pushed to only a brief reference to a lost love or an old friend, but now a space has been provided in which animators and writers can actually explore queer relationships in cartoons.
Rebecca Sugar is the first female creative director of a cartoon for Cartoon Network, and the cast list of Steven Universe is made up of a wide variety of female actresses from different racial and ethnic background. These achievements are important, but more important is the fact that Sugar pointed out earlier which is that young children who are queer finally have a voice and a presence on T.V. Steven as a character is raised not only by queer women, but also in a queer family structure that satisfies, as far as my reading is concerned, Halberstam’s model of Gaga Feminism, for while gems and characters may form relationships, the topic of marriage is largely left out. Marriage isn’t important or necessary because the energy relationship sustains and nurtures Steven. The best part is despite all the weirdness in his life, or perhaps even better, because of the non-stop weirdness, Steven is a kind soul who only wants to help people.
Part of growing up is asking your parents how they met, how they fell in love, or in the case of children missing a father or mother, what their parent was like. Psychologists most likely have an explanation for this behavior, but for my own part children learn early that narratives are how they shape their identity and eventually find a mate to share their life with and the model that parents establish for their kids at a young age helps them formulate what they understand an ideal mate to be. Queer families may be a recent phenomenon, but as time continues on it’s likely that they’ll become far more prevalent and as such Queer parents, and queer kids, can use a television program like Steven Universe because it offers the same story but with a new face.
Prince Charming may not find Sleeping beauty resting in the tower, but that’s only because another princess got to her first.
I’ve provided a few links to articles about the LGBTQ themes in Steven Universe, two of which provided the quotes by Sugar herself:
If this hasn’t sold you to Steven Universe, then I can at least win you over to Rebecca Sugar. She wrote a song for the show Adventure Time and it kind of broke the internet there for a while.
I went ahead and posted a link to the end of Mrs. Doubtfire because watching the scene is far better than ever just reading it, plus it’s a special video that acts as a kind of “tribute” to Robin Williams:
****Writer’s FINAL Note****
I discovered this right before publishing this essay and so here it is, Rebecca Sugar’s Demo of the song Be Wherever You Are. There is a version of Steven singing the song, but to be honest, Sugar’s voice just gives the song a more soulful delivery, and the way she says “Be” just makes me feel happy. Enjoy: