The season five finale of Steven Universe felt like a perfect encapsulation of what makes the show so great — it made a case for its themes and worldview while acknowledging just how difficult it can be holding to those views. Steven, and the family of Crystal Gems he’s built, have often struggled to navigate the labyrinthine paths of healing and reconciliation with humans, gems, and monsters they’ve come across but they have never stopped trying to walk that path. Steven Universe can be surprisingly dark for a children’s show, but that makes its messages land with that much more weight. The writers know how hard it is to have empathy for everyone you meet, even the enemies who want nothing less than your eradication. Fighting, the shows says, is necessary sometimes to protect yourself and the people you love. But you should never, ever lose sight of your true goal: to change the minds of the people you disagree with, to find a way towards peaceful resolution.
For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, Steven Universe is an animated show about the titular half-human, half-alien boy as he comes of age in an idyllic beachside town. His father is a washed-out rocker who now owns a car wash, and has ceded the bulk of Steven’s education to three genderless (but female-presenting) aliens named the Crystal Gems. His mother, Rose Quartz, was the leader of an uprising against a tyrannical galactic empire ruled by the Diamonds, mysterious but incredibly powerful beings who have set very rigid roles for everyone under them and seek to colonize other worlds to keep their empire perfect.
Over the past five seasons, Steven has matured considerably. He has dealt with problems with his human friends; helped repair the trauma endured by the Gems (his caretakers and Rose Quartz’s lieutenants during the uprising); eased tensions between oblivious, panicky townsfolk and the aloof aliens that share the town with him; and learned just how difficult it is to be who you truly are in a world that is constantly seeking to mold you into a category it feels more comfortable with. As I’ve taken this journey with him, I’ve found myself trying harder to understand where people are coming from and work with them from that perspective. It’s not easy — these days it feels impossible — but it’s also necessary. Steven Universe has given me, and hopefully a lot of the children who watch it religiously, a blueprint for emotional maturity that I’m not sure we can get from too many other places.
One of the many things I love about the show is the nature of its dialogue and how it presents its worldview. Steven Universe is not a preachy show, though it does wear its themes proudly on its sleeve. The Crystal Gems are a wholly diverse expression of femininity: there’s uptight, proper Pearl; tomboy-trickster Amethyst; mysterious, self-possessed Garnet. The culture of the Gems gives us an entire society of women with a kaleidoscope of personalities, body types, and stories without diminishing Steven or any of the other men populating Beach City. Personal and cultural disagreements between characters are handled promptly and discreetly; people talk and listen, truly absorbing someone else’s point of view while advocating their own. Most of the time, everyone involved realizes something they could do better, and commit themselves to doing it.
These days it’s really easy to paint people we disagree as inhuman monsters. On the right, any attempt to square injustices or correct harmful attitudes is met with “SJW” or “NPC”. Folks like us are viewed as hordes of weak-willed communists who won’t rest until white men are left with nothing. On the left, most who question the prevailing wisdom of social justice are branded quickly as bigots, Nazis, or hopelessly clueless and dismissed or attacked accordingly. The division has become so white-hot that any attempt to establish a dialogue is frequently met with derision from both sides. The time, it seems, for discussion is over; all that’s left is the fighting.
And I get it: our reality is far more complex and difficult than the world of Steven Universe. People of color, people of different gender expression and sexual preferences, even the economically disadvantaged — we’ve all been treated so badly for so long despite peaceful resistance, civil disobedience, voluntary separation, assimilation and integration, and so many other coping mechanisms that steadfast, unyielding resistance feels like the only option left to us. If we look to our history, especially in the United States, we see that often the only way to affect change is to disrupt the comfort of the status quo enough that there’s no choice. Eventually, things reach a tipping point where what’s come before cannot continue.
But it does, only in a different way. The underlying illness of anti-social, bigoted, racist, xenophobic thinking doesn’t go away. It merely finds a new way to express itself. Colonialism gives way to capitalist exploitation. Slavery gives way to segregation and institutionalized oppression. While one system is eventually recognized as cruel and inhumane, it is merely replaced by another one that is better on paper but not in spirit. The reason we have Nazis and white supremacists on our streets again is that they never actually went away — they simply changed the way they operate so that they can hide in plain sight. If we turn this tide back, society will change, sure. But we’ll have to keep fighting, and another layer of lingering, generational resentment will form the soil where a new crop of bigots can flourish.
Like Steven, we’re in a time where we have to fight in order to protect ourselves and the people we love from the forces that seek to eradicate us just for being different, for being ourselves and not the rigidly-defined roles society has set out for us. We cannot tolerate the callous disregard of another person’s dignity, right to life, or right to happiness. But we also have to remember that our ultimate goal is something else entirely: the end of a need for fighting. And we can’t do that without changing minds. That cannot be done through violence or total defeat. It has to be done through understanding the motivations behind these attitudes and behaviors, honoring the same impulses within us, and finding a way to shift perspectives so those impulses are put towards a more common good.
We’ll still need to live together after the fighting is done. The more either side uses these scorched earth tactics, the more difficult that will be to do. I’m not naive enough to think that we can just talk our way out of this current flashpoint, but I am hopeful enough to believe that more talking can ease the fighting and build a better foundation for whatever peace can be found here. If we are to take up the mantle of the social justice warrior, we have to have a better sense of what being a warrior means. We’re not seeking the end of our enemies; we are seeking the end of enmity. Part of that work is finding a way to purge ourselves of the hostilities we harbor, even to the people (and yes, they are still people) who have done and said horrific things. That is not an easy thing to do. It might take us our entire lives. But if we don’t want to end up right back here in 50 or 60 years repeating this cycle, it’s what we must do. Anything less is a kind of social insanity, repeating the mistakes of our history with the full expectation that things will turn out different this time.
I’m exhausted being angry all of the time. There are still people I can’t talk to because I know they’re not speaking in good faith; when you know someone is manipulating communication for their own ends, there’s no solid foundation with which to build a relationship. There’s simply no way to trust them. I just have to disengage and hope that they can find their way through some other means. But I try very hard not to write someone off if I can help it. No one is too far gone that they can’t come around. No one is irredeemable. I have to believe this, because I would want someone else to believe this of me. We all want to be accepted, forgiven, embraced. Think about what it would take for a Trump (or Hillary) voter to mend your relationship; use this as your North Star. Even though we might get lost in the fog of war for a time, trust that it’s still there. Always move towards it. Never lose sight of it. It may take an impossibly long time to get there, but any step we can take is a good one.