It’s Okay to Have Flaws (Except for You): Steven Universe and Fandom

almost

Steven Universe’s occasional homages to Revolutionary Girl Utena are starting to feel less like cute nods to a beloved nerd thing and more like an earned, legitimate comparison: both shows feature a patchwork of complicated interpersonal relationships and great care for their very well written characters, deal with complex and emotionally charged thematic issues through heavy use of abstraction and symbolism (never forget Utena aired in a primetime slot), and are unafraid of letting their characters seem unsympathetic in the name of developing them.

If you’ve any involvement with the internet-side reactions to the show, you might guess that it’s the last one I’m most interested in talking about today. The latest run of episodes unloaded some very heavy information about the cast, some of it troubling and all of it believable. And doing so has made it clear that SU isn’t just blazing a trail on television but within the context of fandom too, namely in the portrayal of canonical queerness and female-coded characters.

It became inarguably clear (not that I haven’t seen people arguing it, mind) during the last run of new episode that Pearl was and is deeply in love with Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz. They have also made it clear that Pearl has very deep seated issues with self-worth that present as fierce possessiveness when threatened, and unresolved grief so severe that she falls completely prey to powerful, impulsive emotions around the mere subject of Rose. The show (that is, the tone and perspective) has taken great care not to condone Pearl’s negative behaviors while continuing to sympathize with her, and Pearl herself has worked to correct her issues in the present even as she remains very mentally and emotionally vulnerable. She’s heads and shoulders, at present, the most faceted and fascinating character of a very strong ensemble cast.

hugs Look at that monster, realizing she’s been wrong and resolving to be a better mentor

The internet’s reaction to this recent showing of character flaws has been…rather less embracing than my own, shall we say. For a show as firmly intent on finding the goodness and redemptive possibility in everyone, as embodied by its titular character, there is an awfully strong all-or-nothing perspective going on in the fandom. A character is beloved when introduced until they show some kind of failing or hurt the feelings of an already beloved character, at which point they’re completely discarded – this extends not only to very morally grey cases like Peridot (who is complicit in some pretty terrible things, though she might yet be redeemed) to Pearl’s recent outbursts or even Rose’s initial patronizing attitude toward humanity (which the show has already shown she learned from and grew out of). It’s a troubling trend, one that has roots in call-out culture and the “race to least problematic” ideation that I’m going to leave aside here for the sake of sheer scope.

Instead, I want to pick at two issues going on in this recent mess. It’s easy to pick on the “this wouldn’t be happening if these characters were coded as male,” but it’s nonetheless true – as a fan of the unrepentantly (gloriously) awful Bill Cipher, among others, I can promise you I see it regularly. Internalized misogyny is a hell of a thing, and even when a show has put forth the hard work of showing a varied, predominantly female cast there’s still work to be done in breaking down the expectation that the female character is the weak, token, unwanted one. The one you have to include (often for no homo purposes) but aren’t really invested in, and all the character traits that become associated with that role. By the same token, women who are allowed more depth and development are more likely to be placed on a pedestal, disallowed from those “weak” traits that are, in the context of strong, well developed writing, merely human. Traits like thoughtlessness, jealousy, or cowardice.

sniping session Situational sadness aside, listening to two great actors fence was AWESOME

The second, thornier issue regards Pearl as a potential example of the “psycho lesbian” trope: a queer coded-female who becomes violently jealous when the object of her affection turns out to be “normal” and falls for a man. It was an extremely pervasive trope that often cast queer women as inherently mentally broken or (at worst) predators of would-be heterosexuals – in its most extreme forms it’s not far from a gender-specific version of the “let’s equate gays and pedophiles” fallacy. And while there might yet be a conversation to be had on this one (it’s too soon to tell yet, given the conspicuous lack of direct, on-screen discussion between Rose and Pearl about their relationship), I think SU has done the hard work of depicting jealousy without falling into this trap.

There’s a popular post on Mad Max Fury Road that talks about how having a visible female presence in the film allows it to have death regardless of gender rather than The One Lady who must survive to film’s end, to have one character named “Cheedo the Fragile,” to have women of different ages and body types and abilities, and so on. Basically, it opens the door of storytelling possibilities, and devices that read as toxic stereotypes when grafted onto the singular representative of a group are capable of showing a great deal more nuance when explored in a story that allows multiple portrayals of a group or culture.

There’s no doubt that SU is far and away the most progressive piece of children/family media in regards to portrayals of queer individuals and relationships(they’re not totally free, mind – Pearl and Rose’s kiss during their fusion is hidden behind a very convenient lock of hair). Ruby and Sapphire were a revelation, equal partners in a trusting, loving relationship whose bond enables them to form one of the strongest and most compassionate members of the cast. The normalization of, let alone the admiration for (which both Connie and Steven clearly possess) the living relationship that is Garnet opens countless doors to the show’s writers (as well as wonderful little touches like non-binary Stevonnie). That one small but crucial step eases back on the ever-existing weight in a queer viewer’s mind: are these characters together (or not together) because this is what’s allowed to be shown? Could that character be like me, but they weren’t able to get it on TV?

rock shield “Is she – no, no we couldn’t be that lucky, not two on one TV show!”

The establishing of Garnet seems deliberately placed as Pearl and Rose’s history has begun to unfold. Without the pressure of being The Obviously Queer One, Pearl can simply be jealous because those are emotions that arise from her as someone who is insecure and fearful about losing the most important individual in her life. Pearl can be flawed without being beholden to her romantic desires, and the latter can be a part of her character (a hugely motivating part, even) without being the whole of it. Depending upon how this arc resolves itself, there’s even the potential to open further doors.

And that bit of freedom, that attentive writing, even ripples out to tropes used in straight media – Rose might not, depending on the resolution of that arc, be involved in a love triangle at all but trying to form a poly relationship (though if that is the case she was initially very poor at communicating that intent to her partners). Steven and Connie’s relationship can be allowed to be a sweet, loving bond without the pressure of an automatically assumed heterosexual dating bond placed on it (even if they clearly love each other in some fashion, and would in fact be adorable life partners). Breaking down a convention has a ripple effect, and guided by talented hands it’s leading to some truly wondrous results.

Now, it would be nice if internet discourse would do its part in trying to evolve with these new strides in writing. But one day at a time, I suppose.

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7 comments on “It’s Okay to Have Flaws (Except for You): Steven Universe and Fandom

  1. quixim says:

    One of the people I follow Onionjulius wrote a great post about that at http://onionjulius.tumblr.com/post/122134572904/and-there-is-another-thing-i-want-to-say-i-have and it always makes me think of a lot of… things. Particularly, there was that “Trinity effect” blog post from ages ago about how when you only have one woman, she is the “This is what the writers think of women” character, and it’s really really really hard to train yourself away from that, so, like Onionjulius mentioned, every reading and examination of a female character -has- to come through a feminist lens, ad of course any condemnation of one you don’t like also has to have an academic reason behind it – which ties into other SJ stuff, but there’s a reason that it’s always “Pearl is bad because she does this and this and this and it’s sexist to write a character that does this/she’s a monster because she does this” and not “Pearl reminds me of my older sister who bullied me for not being as neat as her and it bugs me” fullstop. Anyway, moral of the story is that I want “You think you have a Feminist Reason for disliking that female character? Are you sure?” on a t-shirt to wear on the internet.

  2. vilsal says:

    I don’t think this is really about Pearl’s faults, anyway. I believe the hate wagon didn’t start properly rolling until We Need to Talk, where Pearl commits the unforgivable sin of… being kind of mean but, as far as we can tell, entirely truthful to a romantic rival? Even if shipping is serious business, surely trying to mold a child into a suicidally devoted soldier is worse.

    The real issue seems to be how the Pearl/Rose/Greg triangle, whatever the exact specifics, is a very complex and unfamiliar situation, and that can cause anxiety. Thus, there’s a temptation to simplify it, and once you start, why not simplify it right back to a heterosexual nuclear family threatened by a psycho lesbian? Thus, there are no romantic implications to kisses, grasped hands and tender “my Pearl”s, Rose can’t have in any way known about Pearl’s feelings because she apparently hides them so well, and there’s no way Rose’s treatment of Pearl wasn’t 100% perfect.

  3. I tend to stay clear of the hardcore SU fandom, but I’ve heard about the Pearl hate. (Which is a shame, as she’s my favorite character on the show). They’re piling the whole Pearl/Rose thing on thick this season- which makes me wonder if they’ll ever resolve it and have Pearl finally move on.

    Really, it’s Rose that kind of comes off the worst in We Need to Talk- mostly for the whole “ignorance of humans” thing. But flawed characters make for good TV, so it’s ok.

    Now we just have to wait til July…

  4. hecker says:

    Your link to the blog post about Mad Max: Fury Road is busted. (I think you forgot to put the http:// in front.)

  5. drumstick00m says:

    Reblogged this on abely0913 and commented:
    Let it all out…

  6. […] Then, of course, there’s the “well they would do it but outrage!” excuse, which is one that I find understandable but increasingly unwilling to accept. Why? The existence of the show Steven Universe on Cartoon Network, which had 5 new episodes in the immediate week. During that time, several episodes focused on or had segments with the character Pearl and her relationship with the late leader of the Crystal Gems, Rose Quartz. While already brought up in the episode “Rose’s Scabbard”, this latest set of episodes solidified beyond pretty much all but the strongest denials (and boy are there some strong deniers) that Pearl was romantically in love with Rose Quartz. Put this on top of the existence of Garnet, a character who is a fusion of two other gems with an expressed romantic relationship with one another (aka a walking One True Pairing), and you have a show that is just chock full of non-heteronormative relationships and characters and doing a fantastic job at exploring them, with flaws and all. I’d recommend this article for a little more discussion on the topic. […]

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