I watch cartoons. I know that’s a bit of a weird thing for a twentysomething to admit, but I’m not ashamed of it. “Grown-up” television just doesn’t appeal to me as much, if I’m honest, and the “grown-up” shows I do watch tend to have elements of the fantastic that are present in the animated shows I love as well.
One of my favorite cartoons at the moment is Steven Universe. It’s a sweet science-fantasy show with a diverse cast, incredible worldbuilding, and excellent character development. It’s maybe only one of the mainstream cartoons on today where there are more female characters than male characters, and even though the main character is a boy, he eschews many of the traditional tropes of boyhood seen in such cartoons.
The thing that most sticks out to me about SU, though, is its fundamental kindness. Scary, sometimes dark, things happen. One of the current overarching plots involves the murder of a powerful Gem by Steven’s mother long, long before he was born. But always, every time, the show resorts to kindness and compassion first and foremost. Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, is often talked about in tandem with love—love for the planet Earth, love for her friends, love for all living things. That love is evident in Steven’s character as well, and it colors almost all his actions. Love is a powerful force in all the characters’ lives, and its importance is one of the bedrocks of the show’s themes.
Steven Universe is, in short, a sweet, nice thing. It never gives in to despair. Even the antagonists have more to them than meets the eye.
So what I don’t understand is people who insist that all that is just a facade for a darker, nastier story.
I saw a post on tumblr today with a theory to this end: it held that Rose Quartz was abusive and manipulative towards Pearl (one of the show’s main characters, who is in love with Rose as well). It said that Rose manipulated Pearl into committing the aforementioned murder, and that Rose had Steven to escape the mess she made. (I should note here that Rose is an alien who could only give birth to Steven by giving up her physical form.) And while the show is dealing with the consequences of Rose’s past actions in many ways, it has never posited something like this.
What I’m driving towards is a larger point: why do some fans insist that sweet, nice shows (many of them made for children) are actually dark and unpleasant and mean? What drives that cynicism, that something kind is actually a lie?
Cynicism is not a foreign concept to me. I live with dysthymia and I’ve had major depression in the past. I understand thinking nice things are lies to cover up nastier things. But when I find something good, and sweet, and kind, I have never immediately jumped to the conclusion that it’s all a lie, and the REAL story is much darker. When I find nice things, I want to keep them, because sometimes my life lacks those kinds of things.
I suppose some of it comes from young people who want to seem mature. The person who wrote that theory I mentioned above wasn’t very far out of their teens. I had a lot of story ideas about people dying or being traumatized and such like when I was a teenager. I thought the edginess made me seem older, I’m sure. Darkness and edginess and cynicism are seen as “cool” in some ways: you’re grown up because you can see the world as it really is, you think.
But the world isn’t just dark and cruel, though in times like these it certainly seems so. Good things happen just as often as the bad ones, and there are more kind people in the world than nasty ones. That’s what I believe, anyway. We need more things that see through to that kindness and bring it into the light. Making them dark because it’s “cooler” invalidates everything they stand for, in my opinion.
Kindness and compassion are brave, not childish and pointless. Steven Universe underlines this again and again, and I hope as the show goes on that more and more people will realize this.