Friday, January 29, 2016

Steven Universe 2-25: The Answer

I try not to get into the utilitarian questions of whether a show is good or bad here -- generally, if I'm following a show past its first few episodes I think it has at least some merit or point of interest.  But it must be said: Steven Universe is special.  Out of everything I watch, it's the only show I would describe as truly great, able to pack more meaning, humour and drama into 11 minutes than most shows manage in a season.  And while I'm equally reluctant to plot television on some linear scale of political progressiveness, the fact that there's a kid's adventure show that deals matter-of-factly with queer relationships and gender fluidity without ever feeling like a political project is pretty great.

The title "The Answer" suggests that this episode will be a sort of big reveal that solves everything, but it isn't.  It doesn't even really provide an emotional resolution.  The story of how Ruby and Sapphire became Garnet has not yet been revealed, but it also seems sort of irrelevant to how the characters interact now -- and if pressed, most people would probably have imagined something close to what the episode presents.  Instead, what is most revelatory about "The Answer" is the background details to the actual love story, which reveal and confirm much about the gemworld mythos.

Steven Universe is presented consistently through the titular character's perspective, which is to say from that of a child growing into adulthood.  Outside of the initial dozen episodes or so, we learn about the outside world when Steven does.  This mirrors adolescent experience.  Along with coming-of-age, there is a coming-of-understanding when we begin to learn about the outside world and how it came to be this way.  As a child, elementary history and geography are fairy stories -- the world is an extended stage for our own personal melodrama.  (Some people never get past this stage, I'm afraid to say).  But we do learn about the vastness of our world, sometimes from formal education but more memorably from when it intersects with and overwhelms our personal experience.  Because of this it's unsurprising that Steven only learns about Homeworld when it's about to crash down on our shows, and only knows bits and pieces of the long-ago war from his guardians' stories.

It is also not surprising, then, that Garnet's bedtime story inadvertently reveals the harshness of Homeworld's caste system.  It is an alien perspective in the truest sense, where societal position overtakes individual identity to the point where three figures with identical appearance and the same name can work together without thinking and fuse into one larger version.

It's also incredibly alienating to us, the viewer, to see a character we know as an individual -- and one with a big personality no less -- as simply one of a set.  It's not even immediately clear which one is the Ruby, and such a question is impossible to the gem point of view.  Using the value contemporary American society places on individuality, the opening minutes of "The Answer" (after the cozy frame narrative with Steven and Garnet) alienate us from conventional ways of conceiving ourselves before going on to reaffirm these ways through a fairly conventional romantic storyline.

There's a dystopian element to the rigid society of the gems, even if Garnet treats it as matter-of-fact backstory.  In writing about dystopias it's easy to lapse into a libertarian worldview that pits society against the figure of the individual.  Steven Universe, however, frames resistance as not an individual act but an interpersonal one.  It is Ruby and Sapphire's feelings for each other that motivate them to defy the gems' caste system.  Garnet herself is a symbol of the dialectic nature of rebellion in Steven Universe, transcending not only high and low in gem society but the opposing figures of individual and collective that dominate contemporary discourse from children's shows to political debates.

One of the things which is so disruptive and disgusting to Homeworld gems about the permanent fusion of Ruby and Sapphire is that they are two different types of gems.  This is a neat inversion of heteronormativity, where the union between similar entities (homo) are seen as natural and those between different ones (hetero) unnatural and antisocial.  Fusion is not always a metaphor for sex, but in this story it definitely has those connotations.

Ironically, the aspect of Ruby and Sapphire's relationship that is queer to human eyes -- that both members have female forms -- is entirely different from, and in fact antithetical to the aspects that make it queer to gem eyes.  The point, then, is not simply to defy the normative but to recognize that what is normative is changes over time and is conditional on society.  Think of it as kids' Foucault.

This is, ultimately, an important message.  The challenge of queer politics is to recognize and accept the different without homogenizing it -- in other words, to accept those with different lifestyles and orientations without doing so because you believe that they are just like you.  Such a perspective is not the same thing as resistance, but it does make resistance possible.  And so while it would be a stretch to call Steven Universe revolutionary, in its casual acceptance of everything from alternate family structures to queer relationships to literally alien perspectives, it does present a potential unusual for any genre, let alone children's fantasy.