Confession time: I still watch cartoons.
I’m a writer who believes he can learn good writing habits from absolutely anywhere, so I have no qualms about trying out new cartoons that friends recommend.
Or just . . . trying them out when they look awesome.
Rick and Morty.
And, especially–said with a heavy, nostalgic heart–Avatar: The Last Airbender, and its follow-up, The Legend of Korra.
The thing is, my ability to watch those shows turned out to be surprisingly rare when I suggested them to fellow writers.
Me: “Avatar–not the James Cameron one, the good one–is one of the best fantasy stories I’ve ever exper–”
Other Writer: “I’m not watching a cartoon show.”
Me: “–ienced . . .”
Me: “You haven’t seen Rick and Morty?”
Another Writer: “No. People keep telling me watch it, but, ha, I just never get around to it.”
Me: ” . . . ”
Yet another time:
Yet Another Writer: “Oh, our [mutual friend] got [whatever article of clothing] because it’s supposed to look like the one character from some cartoon?”
Me: <looks at said article of clothing> “Oh! Lumpy Space Princess? Adventure Time?” <inhales to shout, “I love Adventure Time!”>
Yet Another Writer: “Right–that’s it. Sorry. Didn’t know because I’m an adult and I don’t watch cartoons.” <actually rolls her eyes>
Me: “. . .” <sigh>
So, look, everyone has their reasons, so I don’t want to judge.
But, man what a shitty, boring life.
Cartoons are amazing. They have the ability to convey incredible love and support very real diversity.
And, when it comes to the range of cartoons I watch, no show does love and diversity better . . . than Steven Universe.
For a short summary, a group of aliens called Crystal Gems live in a town called Beach City. There, they defend the world from attacks from their own people–homeworld gems who want to turn earth into a colony for a giant space empire, or corrupted gems, made animalistic and insane after a war with humanity ages ago. Among the Crystal Gems, there’s Steven, the half-human son of the Gems’ former leader, Rose Quartz.
Why I Love It
The show is as much about the Gems and their adventures as it is about Steven, and his growth as a kid. Not simply a rapid loss of innocence, but a sapping of faith that Steven counters with a determination to love and accept everyone.
To not fight, which is, in and of itself, beautiful. It’s a concept that I’ve been working with and one that I think the world needs more of.
But the show’s passive, loving male protagonist is only the beginning of its press for diversity and acceptance.
For starters, Steven is also, obviously, a fat kid. The show embraces that immediately, unabashedly focusing its first episode on Steven’s love for Cookie Cat Ice Cream Sandwiches (which he begins to believe are the source of his budding gem powers). Rather than doing the usual song and dance of fat-kid-loves-food-and-that’s-all-he/she-loves, the episode eventually pushes Cookie Cat aside in favor of showing our overweight protagonist . . .
. . . helping save the day.
Wow. Whodathunk it, right? An overweight kid being some kind of hero? Also, please apply the appropriate amount of bitter sarcasm from a guy who’s struggled with his weight for his entire life. I would’ve loved to have this show when I was 10. Especially because it never slims Steven down to convey character growth; there’s no shitty diet and work-out montage that makes “thinner” synonymous with “better” or “stronger.”
Seasons later, Steven is still fat, and still a hero.
That initiative is followed up with the rest of the 95% female cast. Because, you see, all Crystal Gems are women.
So, our young protagonist is surrounded by incredibly strong, loving, women with a ton of depth.
There’s Amethyst, who’s short, heavy, and loves fighting as much as a good gag.
There’s Garnet, who’s strong and stoic (the old go-to for strong female characters), but she’s also . . . a spoiler I refuse to give away.
Last, there’s Pearl, a comical take on typical thin-equals-best character design–a gangly ballerina who obsesses about perfection. And also hates Steven’s father, because she was in love with Steven’s mother.
Because, of course, all Crystal Gems are lesbians, a concept that the show completely embraces.
But that’s still only scratching the surface of this wildly progressive cartoon for kids. There are episodes where you find out male characters are gay–without gasps or ostracization. There’s Connie Maheswaran, Steven’s best friend, who’s Indian-American.
And there are episodes where side characters are made extremely human and flawed by their conflicts. There are episodes where main characters struggle with the consequences of war and toxic relationships. And, to all of these problems, the solution isn’t just the usual, comic book-ish “Punch it real hard!” Sometimes, it is, because it needs to be.
But just as often, the answer is love. The answer is taking pain in and dealing with it constructively, instead of just dishing it back out.
There’s just . . . so much that Steven Universe does that I genuinely can’t explain here.
So, rather than continuing to rant, I’m going to finish up with . . .
What I’ve Learned from It
Here are the three major things the series has taught me so far:
- Do not be afraid of diversity. We’re clearly living in an America that still fears it, but it doesn’t change the fact that everyone is beautiful. Write for everyone, without holding back. If you feel you don’t know enough about a marginalized group, do research and write them anyway.
On that note, yes, write heavy characters. Ones who are smart, ones who are beautiful. Because, as a heavy man, I know for a fact that there’s more to us than how much we enjoy eating. We aren’t a bunch of maladjusted, bumbling jackasses, but the majority of media will always portray us that way–unless we provide a different dialogue. That dialogue being that not every hero is a 20-something-year-old model.
- Punching isn’t always the solution. Despite what fight-heavy America wants you to think, fighting often just makes a bad situation worse. Stories that embrace combat as a problem, rather than a solution, are just as engrossing–and often richer in real emotion.
- It is always possible to explore a range of side characters. They’re a wealth of stories just waiting to happen. All you need to do is allow those characters to have their stories that exist completely (and realistically) outside of the protagonist’s world. Have a protagonist who’s a hero? The Asian woman who works in the cafe down the block has an awesome story to tell–because she’s a real person–but that story might not have anything to do with your hero.
Well, I did it again. Another 1000+er.
Thank you for reading this one. And, if I’ve piqued your interest in any way, I’d suggest giving Steven Universe a chance. And, for that matter, if you have the adult friend who recommends cartoons . . . maybe check them out on occasion. Because, even though it might not seem like it, there’s a ton a cartoon can still teach a grown adult.
Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was recently published in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process–still trying to figure it out. Part of that means posting on here every weekday, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting an email every weekday–a new post from me delivered right to your inbox–then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.
Regardless though, thank you just for dropping by. And, as always, write well.