I have been a grump. I have been down. And Steven Universe has helped bring me back.
When you’re in a depression it can take a lot of effort to like things. I’ve always naturally been on the critical side (to protect my gooey idealistic and sorely disappointed core) so it admittedly can take quite a bit to impress when it comes to pop mediums. I am very sensitive to how things are written and plotted and I’ll be quick to point out things I didn’t like or felt should have been different. Sometimes this comes in handy; approaching media critically is important. I am indeed the skeptic. I know that much about myself. But sometimes it can be a bit too much.
Not too long ago I found I was going beyond that and was in a total state of grey. Absolutely uninterested, often irritated and just plain bored. I just wasn’t excited about much, and I had a distinct hard edge. When things that you actually like still don’t bring much joy, you know you’ve hit a wall. I’ve worked hard to remedy it and while you can’t ask for perfection, I am feeling better, and a cartoon show about a plucky half-alien tween with a gem in his belly button helmed by Rebecca Sugar have contributed towards my feeling better. I feel I can like things again a bit easier.
Why? First things first; Steven Universe is just a cool show. It has pretty art, an animation style that allows for a lot of fun deformed “off model” faces and bodies for the sake of comedy and expression, gorgeous backgrounds and palettes, and a surprisingly deep and nuanced narrative. Add to that wonderful poc characters and a majority poc voice talents, nonbinary female presenting characters with tons of body types, a sensitive, gentle pacifistic male lead, canon queer romantic relationships and all played out in short 11 minute segments. It’s fantastic (and easy to binge watch).
I didn’t originally think this way. I caught a few episodes when it first aired and I was a bit tepid. I was expecting something a bit different than those initial episodes and it was okay; but I wasn’t as into it as I thought I would be. I was soon wrong. Very wrong. Initial appearances seem to suggest an Adventure Time via Troll dolls and 80s/90s space cartoon flourishes but as you go along what we’ve got instead is in fact a huge love letter to a lot of 80s and 90s shounen and shoujo anime and action cartoons. The art is stunning.
This is not terribly surprising. Many new animated shows, being made by creators who grew up during or witnessed the 90s anime explosion have been creating work with Eastern animation influences for a while. Dexter’s Lab, Powerpuff Girls, and Samurai Jack were ahead of the curve; their looks owed quite a bit to retro anime from the 60s to 80s. After the huge late 90s anime craze series like the original Teen Titans while good in their own right played the current anime stylization of the time straight and tried to ride that wave pretty overtly. I feel culturally we’ve matured since then a little. Shows like also amazing Bee & Puppycat would be an example further up the notch from Teen Titans in terms of filtering stylization and influence. Still very clear anime influence but also it’s own thing. I’d place Steven Universe next in line; its references (Utena and Dragonball Z are numerous and quite prominent) are clear and Pearl is a walking shoujo action trope but it is, more so than the other two series, its own style and is not defined or limited to the expected stylization of the genre which the other two adhere to more.
Ultimately, animation style or not, the characters of Steven Universe, their earnestness and the core theme of “love” and compassion are what affected me the most and cracked my hard shell during an ongoing recovery. Steven’s father Greg, and Steven himself are both earnest and sensitive characters, neither afraid to cry, and are overall amazing and something we desperately need more of to teach boys its okay to be “soft” and romantic, pacifistic and good natured and work towards getting rid of toxic masculinity that teaches otherwise. Seeing how other people reacted to the show and it’s slow burn to blaze is also inspiring. Seeing what characters like Garnet (and by extension Ruby and Sapphire), Amethyst and Pearl, Lapis, Connie, Lars, “The Cool Kids” and above all Steven himself actually mean to people and what they’re doing for them by existing, just speaks spades. It’s really inspiring me to be…softer. Just a little bit. In any case it’s made me feel better.
Please watch it if you haven’t fallen for this show yet. It’s on a summer break too right now so it’s a great time to catch up. Maybe it can help make you feel better too.