This past weekend I was invited by my Drink and Draw buddy Keith to make a collaborative video about Steven Universe for his science fiction audience. He was looking for someone to have an in-depth conversation with about how the show's worldbuilding and character development makes it an ideal candidate for consumption by adult science fiction fans even though it is marketed as kind of a magical adventure show for children.
Keith's video isn't going to be out for a while--he has another one to release first, and then ours will probably have to be three parts because we recorded for about two hours--and believe me, I had no problem talking about cartoons for that long. I'll be sure to share it when it's ready. In the meantime, here's Keith's SF channel.
An interesting topic that came up was how cartoons for previous generations--most notably the stuff fed to us in the 80s--went out of their way to purge all gray morality, avoid references to death, never show actual violence (even in, say, shows like G.I. Joe which were explicitly about war), and sacrifice character and pacing for moral lessons. There were even frequent segments in mainstream shows where the characters taught incomplex lessons about behavior and morality outside of the show, as well as underestimating children consistently so they could drag out a lesson. We knew, as children, that adults were talking down to us, and we watched the cartoons despite that, but we came away from these stories with a sense of dishonesty that built up over time. These shows made by grown-ups would consistently tell us that cheaters never prosper, that liars are always caught, that bullies are always punished, and that kids can always trust adults. And we learned through experience that the world isn't really like that, and developed some trust issues with our entertainment. In the name of trying to protect these kids, the stories of our generation lied to us and taught us lessons that didn't work in context, setting us up with idealistic expectations that would filter into disappointment.
During our discussion, Keith said he thinks that's where the "mean" and "crass" cartoons of the 1990s came from--South Park, Family Guy, Beavis and Butt-Head, and many others that thrive on mocking, shaming, and being foul. We WANTED to see these things in our animation, and found them delightful, because we were so sick of the sanitized lies of dippy "for kids" entertainment that it felt transgressive to see characters hurt each other and describe the world as a kind of awful place. And for us, it felt good for a while. Until all the entertainment out there was jaded and mean-spirited, and the nice entertainment was hard to sell.
And Steven Universe is kind of just what we needed. It's completely, utterly nice, without deriving its humor or its entertainment from hurting its characters or watching its characters hurt each other in contrived ways, and yet the morality is super gray without trying to be dark and edgy. It's actually pretty phenomenal how it manages to do this, though it probably survives with this dynamic intact because the protagonist is a child who is unusually trusting, idealistic, and friendly. And sometimes this helps the group out, while other times it bites him in the ass--like in real life. The adults surrounding him are not nearly as trusting, and they often prefer to punch first and ask questions later, but a little boy yelling for them to stop fighting is NOT always presented as the voice of reason. The show acknowledges a complicated world, and also acknowledges that some idealism helps more jaded, weary characters remember what they're fighting for.
Instead of showing us a world where the bad are always punished, the bad guys are always easily identifiable as villains, and the existence of complicated problems is hidden behind walls staffed by smiling adults asking children not to look behind them, Steven Universe actually shows how a harsh world can hurt--and how it can be dealt with healthfully and, to some extent, successfully. It doesn't pretend the problems aren't there or present them in inauthentic ways. It doesn't try to "protect" kids by not talking about what you do when adults break down and can't help, or when your parents behave more like kids, or when your role models want you to do something that feels wrong and you have to speak up, or when forgiveness is really, really complicated. This show acknowledges that people have those problems, that they're not shameful even though they hurt, and that there are ways to work through them. Without babying the kids that experience them, and without expecting them to need an adult character standing there with a ruler telling them that this is the lesson we're going to explore today.
There are a number of reasons why this show has resonated with people of many backgrounds, but I think this is one of the biggest reasons it has such a huge, rabid adult following. We didn't realize how hungry we were for something like this, and on top of all the other things it does right (lovely music, diversity in cast and character, great worldbuilding, beautiful art, important female and queer representation, atypical presentation of boys as allowed to have emotions without being shamed), it is one of the few shows on television right now that feels authentic in how it teaches its lessons: without making anyone the butt of a joke, without presenting contrived situations to be solved simplistically, without covering children's ears to protect them from the bad sounds, it actually does help us learn while entertaining everyone.
And that's why this one show does far more to actually protect children than any ten shows with canned lessons.