I’ve Been Staring at the Edge of the Divine: Feminist Theology in Moana

Moana is Disney’s latest adventure that follows its new pattern of spinning narratives of female empowerment that appeal to growing mainstream feminist thought. We have a film without a single white person that tells the story of a young woman whose goal in life in no way, shape, or form includes romance with a man. She cares only about adventure, finding her purpose, and ultimately restoring her people’s lands and their sense of their own history. By itself, Moana presents viewers with a strong, ecofeminist message and portrays the meeting of the human feminine with the divine feminine as restorative. However, the film’s Disneyfication of Pacific Island cultures presents some issues when attempting to discuss feminist theology in its narrative (and in this piece I’m intentionally avoiding Christianizing this theology as the story uses a non-Christian/pre-Christian spiritual framework).

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In the moments after I finished watching Moana, I was filled with “warm, fuzzy, feminist feelings.” I had just experienced a quite inspiring and empowering story that ended with restoration for a community and for its deities. In the beginning, the fatherly expectation of Moana isn’t that she marries, but that she assumes her proper place as the chief of her people and swears to protect them just as all the previous chiefs have. Essentially, she is to continue the system as-is once it’s time for her to step up. No one questions that she’ll lead or doubts that she should lead. The problem comes from her desire to travel the sea and return the heart of Te Fiti to prevent her lands from dying. This desire goes against the rules previous generations established to keep their people safe from the dangers of the unknown world.

But Moana later learns that this rule is not eternal and that there’s a sort of collective amnesia about it. With help from her grandmother, she discovers giant rafts from her people’s ancient past and discovers that her people used to travel the sea all the time. Remembering and embodying this forgotten and hidden aspect of her culture gives Moana the determination (and equipment) necessary to successfully make the journey beyond the reef. It’s a powerful testament to the role of collective memory in a culture and women’s place as orators of this memory in history and post-colonial fiction.

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So Moana leaves her island with a clear mission to find the demigod Maui, who is responsible for stealing the heart of Te Fiti in the first place and unleashing the destruction that’s gradually killing the other islands. It is this male demigod’s greed and desire for power that began this desolation of the environment–the ecofeminist message is pretty clear here. Therefore, it is Moana’s responsibility to compel him to return the heart of Te Fiti and restore what he ruined.

Yet in the end, it’s Moana who restores the heart, not Maui. This squarely places femininity as the agent of restoration. Additionally, we learn that the lava monster Moana and Maui believe they need to destroy to get to Te Fiti is actually Te Fiti, showcasing how masculine greed taking something vital from a feminine deity–her very heart–causes destruction.

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However, the restoration does not stop with Te Fiti and Moana. It ultimately extends to Maui as well, who by now has changed as a result of his journey with Moana. When we first meet him, he is arrogant and egotistical. He refuses to teach Moana the art of wayfinding and spends a good deal of time trying to trap or deceive her. We also learn that he is burying his feelings and running away from his past. He creates for himself a seemingly strong front, free of negative emotions just as toxic masculinity would have men do. But by the time Maui is face-to-face with a restored Te Fiti, he has not only dealt with these emotions, but also stepped aside to trust Moana’s leadership. Finally able to push his own ego out of the way, Maui is restored when Te Fiti gives him a new cane that’s even more powerful than his old one. In Moana, restoration really does extend everywhere–the human and the spirit, the individual and the community, the environment, the feminine, and the masculine.

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For a western, American audience that earnestly wants better stories about girls, especially girls of color, Moana resonates and its messages have no doubt had a positive impact on little girls (and little boys) everywhere. However, no Disney rendition of anything has been without its problems, especially when those renditions depict non-white cultures.

If our feminism aims to be intersectional, then we have to understand the real-world effects of the creation, distribution, and marketing of these stories on indigenous people. Two major problems arise with Moana in this regard:

  1. The question of cultural authenticity
  2. White people’s use of a living culture’s actual deities for profit-making endeavors that harm the environment, thereby undermining the film’s ecological message

In the first five minutes of her video essay on Pocahontas, Lindsay Ellis does an apt and humorous comparison of Pocahontas and Moana, highlighting mainstream media’s tendency to portray indigenous people in palatable ways to white people. This inevitably leads to inaccuracies, missed details, and messages that, after some digging, aren’t as positive as they seem.

While Disney’s depiction of non-white cultures in its films has improved in some ways over the years, there is that constant tension that Moana is ultimately a story about an indigenous culture told by white people. The company supposedly formed a board tasked with ensuring and validating a respectful, accurate representation of Pacific Island cultures for this film, but some have criticized that effort as Disney deciding what “cultural authenticity” is and whether or not they succeed at it.

The film may have great messages, but Disney ultimately profits from the production of plastic toys and other merchandise that causes pollution, and increased tourism to Hawaii and Polynesian islands, which includes branding initiatives on jet planes that release pollutants into the atmosphere.

Sticking the film’s portrayal of Maui on a jet plane is ironic, and not in a good way. Are the Polynesian people to whom Maui belongs benefiting from this marketing effort? Other than those individuals directly involved in the creation of Moana, I’m not sure. Additionally, using someone’s deity to encourage tourism and make a few bucks isn’t considerate of whether that culture’s theology even allows for such a thing. In the case of Maui, everything I’ve read has said “no,” especially since that increased tourism causes more pollution and funnels more money into tourism that has drastically changed how indigenous people live their lives.

On a more positive note, a Maori translation of Moana has had a positive impact on indigenous Polynesian people who probably for the first time are seeing themselves on screen and hearing their language spoken in a major film.

In highlighting a feminist theology in Moana, I intentionally avoided Christian language because as a Christian I always attempt to be cognizant of my faith’s colonizing past, especially regarding indigenous cultures. To me, being careful of this is part of loving my neighbor. Restoration and re-memberment within a community are most certainly experiences we discuss in the Church all the time. So in a very general sense, Moana speaks to a familiar theological reality to me. At the same time, many Christian churches and denominations are quite concerned with damage to the environment and being good stewards of the Earth. At General Synod, the United Church of Christ passed an emergency resolution about environmental stewardship. The UCC has also shown increased solidarity with indigenous people over the years, such as renouncing Manifest Destiny and standing with Standing Rock.

In the end, I do think we can celebrate good, powerful messages in fiction when we see them while also contextualizing our reception with real-world effects. Coming short of this would leave us with a rather incomplete feminist theology.


My new blackout poetry collection, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, is out now! Please buy, rate, and review it!

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Legend of Korra: Turf Wars: Balance and Relationship Fragility

Legend of Korra: Turf Wars begins a new spinoff of the Avatar franchise that continues right where the TV series ended. Though the writing is, at times, heavy-handed with its info dumping on the history of homophobia in the Avatarverse (and part of my opinion there may be that I’m above the targeted age range for the comic), I still think it’s a solid beginning to an interesting new Avatar story. The tension between spirituality and modernity is ever more prominent, with a greedy capitalist attempting to claim the lands around the new spirit portal and a new gang leader whose ruthlessness shakes the streets of Republic City.

Balanced with this setup is the official, unambiguous start of Korra and Asami’s relationship. It’s two thirds adorable and one third tense as they brush up against each other’s insecurities.

Spiritual Beginnings

I’ve written in the past about the initial nonphysical nature of Korra and Asami’s relationship and its ties to transcendence or spirituality. While I find this a significant foundation given both women’s past relationships with Mako, which got physical almost immediately, I also find it quite meaningful that their physical relationship with each other begins in the Spirit World. Korra and Asami share their first kiss in the Spirit World, this beautiful yet at times terrifying and dangerous place. The Spirit World is accessible to humans, but not predictable, and the Avatar doesn’t always experience reverence or respect. It’s a stunning, everlasting, yet delicate place. Korra and Asami’s relationship quite literally transcends worlds. Only when Korra and Asami return to the human world do they face the fragility of their relationship.

Realities of the Human World

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From Vice.com

Korra, having absolutely no chill, immediately takes Asami to her parents to tell them the news of their relationship. It’s slightly awkward and cringe-worthy because Korra always does this. She is, self-admittedly, intense, and in this moment that intensity reveals itself. It’s reminiscent of her confession to Mako early on in Book 1, and it’s in line with her rush to accomplish/do everything all at once. Although she’s learned much over the years, this seems to just be a part of her nature. The difference between this instance with her parents and those of the past is that Korra recognizes it and apologizes. She knows she’s intense and she realizes that she charged right into disclosing her relationship with Asami without talking to her about it. If Korra can’t change her tendency to rush, she can now at least catch herself doing it.

Yet this meeting with Korra’s parents is not the most fragile moment in Turf Wars. That moment comes at the refugee camp, where Korra expects Asami to help in exactly the same way that she does: by making public appearances. Korra perceives that Asami is the girl who can keep up with her intensity 100% of the time, so she concludes that Asami must always act and be on her level. She expects the same unwavering support from Asami that she did from Mako. In that moment when they part ways with an awkward “Okay,” Korra may be having a mini-crisis on the inside where she’s terrified that not being on the same wavelength with Asami means that the relationship will fall apart as it did with Mako.

Asami is also terrified in this interaction, not of Korra, but of losing Korra. She is so used to people leaving, and we see this insecurity arise in the look on her face. Both of her parents have died. She’s been cheated on and played (twice). Her company has been screwed over. No wonder she’s antsy about any perceived breakdown in her important relationships. That look on her face says “I’m afraid of losing you over this.”

Balance Nonetheless

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From Entertainment Weekly

This conflict does have a happy resolution. After inspiring the refugees, Korra returns to find Asami and Zhu Li doing what Asami does best: drawing up blueprints for a new construction project, specifically one that would provide new housing for the refugees. In this, Korra (hopefully) sees that while her own way of helping by being a public figure has value, Asami’s way of maximizing her skills and resources for justice is just as valuable.

In fact, it’s this difference in their qualities and positions in society that exemplify how well-balanced Korra and Asami are. At their best, they cover a lot of ground in making the world a better place, with Korra more in the public eye as an inspiring figure and Asami focusing on tangible, material ways to improve things.

Could Korra and Asami’s respective insecurities put a Future Industries wrench in their relationship? Absolutely, if they don’t talk about or acknowledge what they’re feeling. Yet given the foundation Korra and Asami have already built by choosing to be close and vulnerable with each other, they already have the capacity to work through it no matter how awkward it gets.

I’m looking forward to seeing their relationship grow over the next two issues, and seeing that it’s not a perfect, blissful fantasy 100% of the time. It’s still fragile and beautiful and should be shown as such.

Loving the Enemy and Building Community in My Little Pony and Steven Universe

As I prepared for the sermon I preached at my church several weeks ago, this notion of loving the enemy stayed fresh in my mind and I joked with the youth group that I’d preach about Steven Universe (some of the kids are fans). Both this series and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic have told us redemptive stories of seemingly unlovable characters which, in my view, express the gospel’s call to radical hospitality.

A million years ago, when I was still in college, I wrote a blog post analyzing Princess Celestia and Princess Luna’s relationship in season 1’s pilot episodes, and how the reconciliation between the two sisters aligns to the classical Christian narrative of redemption and salvation. In this case “redemption and salvation” mean that Luna is healed of Nightmare Moon and is welcomed back into community with Celestia and Equestria at large (although she barely gets any character development after this).

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Since season 1, there have been several other character arcs where an evil or unlovable character has not merely been defeated, but welcomed into the friendship of the Mane Six. Discord, Sunset Shimmer, Starlight Glimmer, (The Great and Powerful) Trixie–all of these former antagonists, to some degree or another, get a chance at reformation and are permanently changed after experiencing friendship when no one else would give it. Some characters, like Sunset and Starlight, undergo a more dramatic change than others, but the end result is still that there is room at the table, whether that’s the literal table of Twlight’s court or the figurative table of community.

But being in a community isn’t as simple as accepting the invitation and living happily ever after. Learning how to be a friend is a continuous process, and even the Princess of Friendship herself still has a thing or two to learn, given her severe distrust of Starlight and Trixie’s friendship. Discord struggles with unhealthy, possessive behavior over Fluttershy. Sunset, both in Equestria Girls and the main series, has to overcome her guilt and the stigma of her past. All of these problems surface because being accepted into a community itself is not perfection. It’s an agreement to grow with others, and from what we’ve seen so far in six seasons of My Little Pony, there is nothing that anyone can do among the Mane Six that would permanently oust them from friendship.

This notion of integrating the “unlovable” into a community goes hand in hand with loving the enemy, although in My Little Pony and Steven Universe, it takes a more literal meaning. As I said in my sermon, loving the enemy doesn’t mean that what the enemy does or did is okay. Even though Discord and Starlight Glimmer experience the friendship of the Mane Six, neither that friendship nor their turning points in which they realize the error of their ways sanctifies their past or future actions. Discord gets a stern talking-to when his jealousy of Tree Hugger at the Grand Galloping Gala makes him violent and possessive. Starlight Glimmer continues to make mistakes and sometimes slip back into her old ways as she learns more about friendship. Even though these characters still make mistakes, and their pasts are not entirely brushed to the side, they are still much better off having experienced friendship from those who were once their enemies. If radical friendship had not been extended to them, where would they be? Discord would still be a threat to Equestria and Starlight Glimmer would still be out messing with ancient spells that alter reality. And both characters would still be incredibly lonely.

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Steven Universe is perhaps even more intentional with this recurring narrative of love and redemption for enemies. Whereas Twilight Sparkle and the Mane Six seem to attempt friendship as a last resort, Steven reaches a point of embracing and understanding those he conflicts with much sooner. Peridot and Blue Diamond are two notable examples. It takes a while with Peridot, but once Steven decides to open himself up to Peridot and extend his friendship, both the Crystal Gems and the audience begin to change their perception of Peridot. This Homeworld gem who was once the primary enemy is now invited into the family, and the result is that Peridot switches her loyalties to protect Earth rather than destroy it. Equally important is that she now has a community in which she can grow and develop gifts that she didn’t know she had (e.g. the gem equivalent of metal bending). This is because she’s welcomed into a group that lets her break out of the mold she was created for. Is the transition easy? Absolutely not. I’ve written previously about the initial tensions among Peridot and Garnet as Peridot’s Homeworld ideas are challenged at every turn. Currently, Peridot is still figuring out her place within this new dynamic.

Blue Diamond, I’m predicting, will be another such redemption tale, although the consequences will be much more dramatic given that she’s a matriarch and holds formidable power. She is one of the pillars of Homeworld’s society and hierarchical structure, so any change she undergoes that affects the way she rules will undermine what seemed so fix and may very well cause a war.

Yet we’ve also seen in recent episodes that Steven’s tendency to accept former enemies backfires. In “Room for Ruby,” Navey (Navy?) takes advantage of Steven’s kindness, exposing it as naivety to reclaim her ship. Such is the risk of radically and unquestioningly inviting enemies into the community. Situations like these may make us want to keep others at a distance. It’s a constant tension between hospitality and self protection.

Steven also seems to be learning that inviting people (or gems) into the Crystal Gen family does not necessarily mean they’ll genuinely change. Ronaldo doesn’t change. Navey/Navy doesn’t change. Who’s to say that the next gem Steven reaches out to will change or accept the invitation to join his community? Will he become more guarded or still unashamedly attempt to create a welcoming space all around him?

All of these are challenges, dreams, and realities the Church faces and will continue to face. But no matter the outcome, the call is still the same, though that doesn’t make it easy.

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Fusion: Mysterious Unity in Steven Universe

This is an article I wrote that was originally published on The Ontological Geek.

Steven Universe fol­lows Steven and his care­tak­ers Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl as they chill in Beach City, sav­ing the world from mon­sters and aliens who want to destroy Earth. Steven’s guardians are “gems,” an all-female alien race from a plan­et called Homeworld, who not only wield their own mag­i­cal weapons, but can also com­bine them­selves through a process called fusion. Each new pre­sen­ta­tion of fusion in Steven Universe reveals yet anoth­er layer of this com­plex, inti­mate phe­nom­e­non that not even the gems who experience it seem to fully under­stand. Whatever lan­guage audi­ences or char­ac­ters in the show use to explain fusion, a com­plete def­i­n­i­tion never quite mate­ri­al­izes. We become much like Meno–giv­ing exam­ples of fusion (call­ing it love, inti­ma­cy, or power), but not fully grasp­ing what fusion is in its entire­ty. Fusion can be con­sen­su­al or forced, sta­ble or unstable, beau­ti­ful or ter­ri­fy­ing. Some fusions, like Stevonnie (a fusion between Steven and his friend Connie) and Garnet, break the per­ceived bar­ri­ers of fusion. The for­mer shows that fusion with organ­ic mate­ri­al (humans) is pos­si­ble and the lat­ter intro­duced the notion of fusion between two dif­fer­ent kinds of gems. Once it seems like fusion is com­plete­ly under­stood, some new form of it appears as a reminder that it exists just beyond the bounds of logic.

On the sur­face, it’s easy to explain what hap­pens when gems fuse. They dance to get in sync with each other and that ener­gy lets them com­bine to form a new gem. Garnet and Pearl cre­ate Sardonyx. Pearl and Amethyst cre­ate Opal. Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl cre­ate Alexandrite (which they can’t keep sta­ble for very long). There are five dif­fer­ent fusion pos­si­bil­i­ties just with­in the main char­ac­ters.

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Fusions are more pow­er­ful than the indi­vid­u­al gems them­selves. This makes fus­ing ideal for bat­tles or accom­plish­ing great feats of strength. In this sense, fus­ing is prac­ti­cal and tac­ti­cal. It’s done to achieve speci­fic goals and noth­ing more. At least, that’s what some gems believe fusion should be.

The Homeworld gems — refer­ring to the antag­o­nists hail­ing from the plan­et where gems come from — have strict, well-defined class­es among them and equal­ly rigid ideas about fusion.

  1. It can only occur between two or more of the same gem (e.g., Rubies can only fuse with other Rubies).
  2. It should be done for the sake of excelling in bat­tle.
  3. It should be tem­po­rary.
  4. It’s just a cheap tac­tic to make weak gems stronger (sorry not sorry).

These rules are so fun­da­men­tal to Homeworld’s social struc­ture that any deviance from them is con­sid­ered offen­sive or even dis­gust­ing. In fact, until Ruby and Sapphire accidental­ly fused, most gems didn’t con­sid­er fusion between two dif­fer­ent kinds of gems to be pos­si­ble. This, among many other rea­sons, caused Ruby and Sapphire to defect from Homeworld. In the present, how­ev­er, any judge­ment that Garnet expe­ri­ences isn’t from the fact that she is two dif­fer­ent gems that fused, but that she stays fused all the time. That first rule, how­ev­er per­ma­nent it seemed in the past, has become obso­lete. It’s the same with that memet­ic fourth rule. Jasper spouts it off as a solid fact and then coerces Lapis Lazuli into fus­ing just a few min­utes later. Homeworld gems thought they knew every­thing there was to know about fusion, but it remains par­tial­ly in this unknow­able realm and that mys­tery about it occa­sion­al­ly breaks these notions that seem so strong.

Ruby and Sapphire’s deci­sion to stay per­ma­nent­ly fused is a metaphor for a com­mit­ted and inti­mate rela­tion­ship. They’re queer in both the lit­er­al and aca­d­e­mic sense (the lat­ter of which I have mixed feel­ings about given the ten­den­cy of some to claim any sort of minor “dif­fer­ent­ness” as “queer­ing”). Gems are a female alien race, so there prob­a­bly isn’t any con­cept of het­ero­sex­u­al­i­ty or homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, but from a reader-response perspec­tive, Ruby and Sapphire are one of many exam­ples in Steven Universe of transgressing bound­aries we find in the real world. Fusion overt­ly speaks to the audi­ence as exam­ples of healthy rela­tion­ships (Garnet) and abu­sive ones (coerced fusions such as Jasper and Lapis Lazuli), allow­ing the series as a whole to safe­ly explore multi-faceted, dif­fi­cult, and taboo top­ics.

Analyzing Ruby and Sapphire just with­in their own uni­verse, we see their rela­tion­ship breaks a seem­ing­ly immutable law of fusion; how­ev­er, they fur­ther dis­turb the sta­tus quo by remain­ing fused even when they’re not doing any­thing of per­ceived value. Peridot, who begins as an enemy and becomes an ally, makes this objec­tion, as Garnet’s exis­tence challenges her Homeworld-based under­stand­ing of fusion:

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Garnet’s delib­er­ate refusal to fit her­self back into com­fort­able notions of fusion is a stark reminder that fusion stretch­es beyond any imposed lim­i­ta­tions or under­stand­ings of what it’s sup­posed to be. For Peridot specif­i­cal­ly, fusion is unchart­ed ter­ri­to­ry, and beneath her dis­gust for Garnet is a fear of the incom­pre­hen­si­ble. What real­ly hap­pens when two gems fuse? Are Ruby and Sapphire still con­scious, still present as Garnet, or do they cease to exist in some way? Will Peridot still be Peridot if she fuses with anoth­er gem?

Even Garnet, for as long as she’s been per­ma­nent­ly fused, can only describe her state using fig­u­ra­tive lan­guage that would make sense to Peridot or Steven or who­ev­er she’s explain­ing her­self to. Peridot only begins to under­stand Garnet when Garnet says that she’s “like Percy and Pierre,” Peridot’s #1 ship from a TV show she watch­es obses­sive­ly. But to get a lit­tle Socratic for a moment, Garnet is still only say­ing what she — what fusion — is like, not what it actu­al­ly is. No metaphor can per­fect­ly or com­plete­ly cap­ture the nature of fusion rela­tion­ships.

Similarly, metaphors can­not per­fect­ly or com­plete­ly cap­ture mys­ter­ies of faith. So far, Steven Universe has not been par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious or spir­i­tu­al. Perhaps the clos­est it comes to this is in Rose’s “death” and trans­for­ma­tion into Steven. Fusion is not quite representa­tive of any Western under­stand­ings of the Trinity. Fusion itself, or the mix­ing of two natures, actu­al­ly goes again­st typ­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tions of the hypo­sta­t­ic union (the under­stand­ing of Christ’s nature as both fully God and fully human). However, what fusion and the Trinity do have in com­mon is that they’re both mys­te­ri­ous uni­ties.

Many Christian denom­i­na­tions believe in one God in three per­sons who are typ­i­cal­ly labeled “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.” Of course, they can just as eas­i­ly be labeled “Creator,” “Christ,” and “Spirit” or any sim­i­lar titles because the goal is to express a relation­ship. The Bible itself doesn’t actu­al­ly spell out any doc­trine of the Trinity, but rather this doc­trine was for­mu­lat­ed through the work of early the­olo­gians in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th cen­turies. Lesser known Christian denom­i­na­tions are non­trini­tar­i­an and this along with other doc­tri­nal dif­fer­ences caus­es some to say that they aren’t real­ly Christians. I’m not inter­est­ed in delv­ing into those argu­ments, but I will say that grasp­ing the Trinity and artic­u­lat­ing it well with­out describ­ing a heresy (if you’re an ortho­dox Christian) is exceed­ing­ly dif­fi­cult.

Heresy” is a strong word with neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions of witch hunt­ing and para­noia, but the term at its root basi­cal­ly refers to beliefs about the nature of Jesus, God, and Christian prac­tice that have been reject­ed as false­hoods. For exam­ple, around 318 A.D., two dudes named Alexander and Arius had a huge dis­agree­ment about the role of Christ in rela­tion to God. They both believed that God is per­fect and there­fore can­not change. Arius’s issue was that in order to truly say that God can’t change, then you can’t also say that Christ is divine the same way God is divine because incar­nat­ing and expe­ri­enc­ing human life through Christ would change God’s nature. Since Arius held that God can­not change, he con­clud­ed that Christ isn’t fully divine, but instead is an exalt­ed human. This means that Christ isn’t equal with God and is in fact sub­or­di­nate to God.

Alexander dis­agreed with Arius and main­tained that God and Christ were equal and of the same sub­stance, even though this idea is hard to wrap our heads around and neat­ly fit with­in our human logic. This argu­ment ulti­mate­ly led to the Council of Nicea where all the church lead­ers gath­ered to fig­ure out what they believed. Alexander’s view gained the most sup­port. He ensured that the Nicene Creed –– which became the basis of Christian doc­trine –– includ­ed lan­guage that dis­proved Arius’s views and stat­ed that such views were hereti­cal. In other words, Arianism was reject­ed as incor­rect. The church lead­ers held that God and Christ don’t exist as a hier­ar­chy and are made of the same “stuff,” so to speak, even though this dec­la­ra­tion rais­es more ques­tions than it answers. “The bish­ops gath­ered at Nicea rec­og­nized that they were will­ing to affirm mys­tery rather than allow heresy” (Olson & English, Pocket History of Theology, 32).

That’s exact­ly what the Trinity is: a mys­tery. Any expla­na­tion of it will fall short of fully cap­tur­ing God as one-in-three-persons, just as any expla­na­tion of fusion will fall short of cap­tur­ing every­thing it can mean and be.

To keep things sim­ple, I’m going to present two broad inter­pre­ta­tions of the Trinity: one from the Latin Orthodox Church (which became Catholicism, Protestantism, and most of the other forms of Christianity seen in the West) and one from the Eastern Orthodox Church. I’m draw­ing from a book called Christian Doctrine by Shirley Guthrie.

When Western Christianity talks about the Trinity, what we mean in spir­it is a rela­tion­ship of equals in which the stan­dard descrip­tors — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — are metaphor­i­cal rather than strict indi­ca­tors of gen­der and author­i­ty. So we intend, in our heart of hearts, to depict the Trinity like so:

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Our favorite Space Dorito has the perfect head shape to borrow for some basic diagrams.

What’s impor­tant here is that the per­sons of the Trinity are labeled on the lines of the trian­gle rather than the points. This depicts an equal­i­ty between them where nei­ther one appears to be above the other two. This is the real­i­ty of how many Christians expe­ri­ence the Trinity, but when we attempt to explain it, we end up pre­sent­ing some­thing like this:

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This layout depicts a hierarchy like what Arius believed.

Guthrie states, “When we Western monothe­ists say ‘God,’ we do not in prac­tice think of three equal per­sons; we tend to think of one ‘top’ God, the Father, and two sub­or­di­nate and some­how lesser divine beings, the Son and the Spirit.” In other words, we’re used to think­ing about God as a hier­ar­chy — like a boss of a huge cor­po­ra­tion over­see­ing and direct­ing two employ­ees. Father, Son, and Spirit become strict iden­ti­ties (that are often gen­dered) with speci­fic tasks. For exam­ple, we may say that the Father cre­ates, the Son redeems, and the Spirit guides as if they are all com­plete­ly sep­a­rate from each other. However, all the per­sons of the Trinity are on the same level, act­ing as one expressed as three.

Depicting this with a tri­an­gle, as Western Christians tend to do, can make it dif­fi­cult to see that egal­i­tar­i­an unity, and cer­tain­ly some tra­di­tions may posit an all pow­er­ful male Father, a grace­ful and sub­or­di­nate Son, and a guid­ing Holy Spirit (who per­haps is female).

Eastern Orthodoxy gives us anoth­er way to look at the Trinity with a term that immediately made me pic­ture fusion when I learned it: peri­chore­sis. Guthrie writes, “Peri (as in perime­ter) means ‘around.’ Choresis means lit­er­al­ly ‘danc­ing’ (as in chore­og­ra­phy of a bal­let). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like three dancers hold­ing hands, danc­ing around togeth­er in har­mo­nious, joy­ful free­dom.”

Other than “Peri” also being Amethyst’s cute nick­name for Peridot, this descrip­tion is basi­cal­ly what gems do to fuse. The main dif­fer­ence is that the per­sons of the Trinity aren’t cre­at­ing a brand new enti­ty with their unity. Also, fusion tends to have romantic/sexual/intimate under­tones where­as under­stand­ings of the Trinity don’t.

But at the end of the day, what’s most com­pelling about both fusion and the Trinity is not fig­ur­ing out how, exact­ly, they work, but rather expe­ri­enc­ing them in all their mys­tery. Upon meet­ing Stevonnie for the first time, Garnet says, “You are not two peo­ple. You are not one per­son. You are an expe­ri­ence.”

And near the end of the episode “Log Date 7 15 2,” Peridot reflects on her expe­ri­ence of attempt­ing to fuse with Garnet. “I have attempt­ed a fusion with the fusion Garnet. I had hoped to gain a bet­ter under­stand­ing of fusion. Instead, I gained a bet­ter under­stand­ing of Garnet.”

The phe­nom­e­na will always be a mys­tery, but the per­sons involved in the phe­nom­e­na are know­able and it’s pos­si­ble to expe­ri­ence them. Guthrie says, “The Trinity is a mys­tery to be con­fessed, not a math­e­mat­i­cal prob­lem to be solved.”

For some, that may not be good enough. Why believe in some­thing you can’t fully explain? But for oth­ers, faith and expe­ri­ence aren’t always about explain­ing every facet of a mystery. Even when try­ing to explain the mys­tery is our start­ing point, we may find ourselves like Peridot who demands a com­plete expla­na­tion of a mys­tery and instead comes away with a bet­ter under­stand­ing of her fel­low gem.

Cutie Marks and Extending the Table

When My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic first aired, I noted how cutie marks represent both growing up and spiritual calling. Since then, the show has explored cutie marks in much greater depth. Wrapped up in cutie marks is all the bliss and anxiety about identity–when will I know what I’m supposed to do with my life? What if I don’t like or understand my cutie mark? What happens when I’m forbidden from living out the purpose for which my cutie mark stands?

Now, there’s a new cutie mark question to ask: Can anyone have a cutie mark, or is it just for ponies?

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In “The Fault in Our Cutie Marks,” a Griffon named Gabby comes to Ponyville seeking the Cutie Mark Crusaders, who have been living out their newly discovered purpose of helping other ponies discover their identities (and thus receiving their cutie marks). She wants so much to participate in the kind of transformative love that she witnessed when Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie visited Griffonstone that she is determined to get a cutie mark of her own. Who better to ask than the Cutie Mark Crusaders?

However, no creature except ponies has ever had cutie marks. Receiving one, and thus having a visible mark of one’s purpose, is an experience unique to ponies. Can a Griffon partake in something that is so deeply rooted in pony culture?

This episode’s answer is yes, but not in the same way and that’s okay. Griffons can’t receive cutie marks. No mysterious branding appears on their flanks that tells the world what they’re meant to do in life. The exact ways in which ponies discover their purpose and then live in community with one another according to that purpose are not possible for Griffons.

Once the CMC realize that it’s truly impossible to help Gabby receive a cutie mark, they become distraught and think they’ve failed in their purpose. In truth, they just need to rethink how one can have a cutie mark. They manage to find a way to “extend the table” of this unique pony experience to other creatures by accommodating a different way of presenting a cutie mark. They give Gabby her own cutie mark pins that she wears on her mail bag. Not only does this extend the cutie mark experience to another race (which historically has a rocky relationship with ponies), but the fact that Gabby’s cutie mark pins match the CMC’s cutie marks welcomes her into community with them.

Early Christianity faced a similar question of just how far the transformative experience of Jesus truly stretched. Was it also for Gentiles, and if so, did they need to be circumcised? Throughout Christian history, the sacrament of communion has also had specific barriers placed around it determining who can partake and who can’t.

One phrase many Christians use to talk about communion is “extending the table.” In progressive churches like mine, this means we practice open communion where anyone who wants to partake may do so. They don’t have to be members. They don’t have to be confirmed or baptized. There is no spiritual milestone or requirement that they must meet to be part of our church community. We may adapt how we provide access (such as having gluten-free wafers for those with allergies), but all are still able to participate no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey.

In the same way, it’s okay that Gabby can’t have a cutie mark that physically appears on her body. She can still be part of the Cutie Mark Crusaders and spread everything she’s learned from them to her own community, which will hopefully help other Griffons experience the love she’s so readily seen among ponies.

Transcendence and Subtlety in Queer Ships

Queer erasure and censorship in media isn’t a new problem. Although things have certainly changed in recent years, overt representation of queer women in cartoons (and anime to a lesser extent) is still pretty sparse. Where it does occur, it’s sometimes embedded in some type of spiritual or transcendent narrative in which the transcendence of one or both partners acts as an ambiguous confirmation of their relationship. At the same time, transcendent narratives present profound themes that tie to larger ideas in the show. Korrasami and Utena x Anthy are two examples of queer lady ships in which transcendence or connection with the spiritual exists in tension with the ambiguity of their relationships.

Korrasami: Nonphysicality and the Spirit World

An image shows Korra and Asami facing each other in the glow of a spirit portal while holding hands.

Over a year ago, I joined with the rest of the Internet gushing over the Legend of Korra series finale. Subsequent Tumblr posts from Mike and Bryan confirmed Korrasami, which fueled ongoing debates about Korrasami’s value as queer representation. Did Bryke do their best in the face of network censorship, or should the queer community reject Korrasami for being barely more than breadcrumbs (as portrayed just in the series itself)? Does good queer representation mean that there cannot be any ambiguity about the relationship by the time a series ends, especially in light of people who stress that they’re just “gal pals”?

There may not be a straight answer.

Puns aside, I do think we can glean some good meaning from what we see of Korrasami’s relationship in those last moments as they hold hands and enter the portal to the Spirit World. To start, we need to compare Korra and Asami’s relationship with the relationships they have with Mako.

Because overt heterosexuality is permissible (and assumed) in children’s animation, Korra and Asami’s respective relationships with Mako contain that physical element. Both Masami and Makorra happened fast. One minute, Asami runs into Mako with her moped and does a hair flip. The next minute, they’re dating. Though Makorra happens a little slower than that, it’s still canon by the end of season one. Compare that to the three seasons it took for Katara and Aang to get together. Physical attraction or infatuation likely cause these quick hookups. Neither Korra nor Asami has much time at all to get to know Mako before dating him (and being physical with kisses and such). Mako and Korra do know each other a little bit better before they officially start dating, but Korra spends most of Book 1 with “Mako blinders” on, so to speak. He’s cool and charming and great, but Korra doesn’t actually know if they’re compatible. Both of them rush into their relationship and it’s clear by Book 2 that that they have no clue how to be with or support each other. It’s the same with Mako and Asami. In Book 3, Korra and Asami place the issue squarely on Mako’s inability to understand his own feelings or what he wants.

But during this Makorra and Masami dance, Korra and Asami begin their friendship. Korra is the reluctant one. In her brash judgments, she decides that Asami is her competition for Mako and is nothing more than a prissy heiress. Asami, however, shows nothing but respect and kindness for Korra. So as their friendship really starts to grow in Book 3, both could very well be attracted to each other in the same way that they were attracted to Mako. However, their history with him may compel them to actively and intentionally deny physicality. They both remember what happened the last time they rushed their feelings for someone they liked and they don’t want another burnout. So, they choose nonphysicality and spirituality becomes entwined with it. Asami is the one who requests the vacation to the Spirit World, of all places, so whatever is starting between her and Korra is intimately connected with the spiritual.

Now, technically speaking, holding hands is a physical act, but when we think of “physical” in terms of romantic relationships, we typically mean more than hand-holding. The absence of kissing or the types of touch one would usually have only in the context of a romantic relationship is what makes Korrasami “nonphysical.” However, their relationship is still deeply affectionate and there are plenty of examples, especially throughout Books 3 and 4, of the care they extend to each other.

Abstaining from physicality has some precedence in the Avatarverse. During Aang’s training with Guru Pathik, he’s encouraged to let all earthly attachments go when opening his chakras, which include the physical needs of his body and emotional ties, particularly his love for Katara. There’s this notion that being free of all tethers to the world will lead to a greater connection with the divine. Aang is ultimately unable to renounce his attachment to Katara and that’s the end of that.

Korra and Asami do have an attachment to each other, yet they are easily able to enter a spiritual realm. Part of this is because the plot of Legend of Korra allows for this, but I think another way to look at it is as an affirmation that earthly relationships can be windows into spirituality if they’re built on foundations other than physical gratification. This doesn’t mean physicality is bad. It just means that it isn’t a lasting foundation and Korra and Asami have learned that through their relationships with Mako.

Yet doesn’t Korrasami’s ambiguity as shown in the series make it too easy to dismiss them as “just gal pals”? That’s the constant tension of transcendent queer relationships. Because their affections are not or cannot be explicitly shown, these relationships take on many metaphorical elements. When relationships are up for interpretation, fans tend to categorize them on one end of a binary or another. They’re either just friends or they’re dating.

I don’t think this binary is particularly helpful in talking about Korrasami because I see both strong friendship and romantic love between them, which I’ve expounded on in other pieces on this blog. Moreover, their relationship suggests more of a spectrum than a binary. This quote sums it up nicely:

“Friendships include love and power, embodiment and spirituality. . . .Women experience these dynamics to various degrees in everyday friendship. . .sexuality, as most women see it, is an integrated part of everyday human interaction–whether touch, embrace, caress, or more intimacy. The prioritization of friendship based on women’s experiences offers a different starting point for sexual choices. Friendship becomes the bedrock of all love relationships. It is a good foundation” (Hunt, “Love Your Friends: Learning from the Ethics of Relationships,” Queer Christianities, 140).

Being friends doesn’t exclude the possibility of romantic relationship. Friendship is the substance on which relationships thrive. Korra and Asami spend Books 3 and 4 making that foundation solid. Their friendship shouldn’t be used to discount or eliminate romantic attraction because doing so results in lesbian and bisexual erasure. Instead, their friendship ought to be seen as the grounding of their relationship–whatever it may be when they disappear through the spirit portal. Who knows what the comics will bring to their relationship? If we get lots of scenes of their vacation in the spirit world, there could be more to say about how their relationship connects to the divine.

Utena x Anthy: Someday, Together

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Everything about Revolutionary Girl Utena is a metaphor and that includes Utena and Anthy’s relationship. So, it makes sense that their relationship has this ambiguous, transcendent element. Utena and Anthy’s ambiguity fits with what the rest of the show presents. In a way, defining the relationship as anything would almost take away from its compelling mystery.

In the past, I’ve framed Utena as a Christ figure and the events of the last couple of episodes in the series as a salvation narrative. Utena’s death/transcendence and Anthy’s possible immortality makes their relationship go beyond the physical world, which therefore places them in a space where logic and clear definitions can’t fully grasp what’s going on. And as someone who talks about “divine illogic,” that’s totally cool with me–profound, even. Utena now exists in some intangible world outside of Ohtori Academy and Anthy, having been given a way out of the same cycle through Utena’s “death,” follows her on that journey, hoping to reunite with her someday. It’s subtly romantic in the context of other moments they have throughout the series, but it’s also quite spiritual because of this sense of passing and breaking through a seemingly unbreakable cycle. It’s not as blissful and Korra and Asami walking into the spirit portal together, both clearly alive, but it still has that element of a relationship carrying over into another world.

For me, if queer relationships must be subtle or undefined, they should be so in connection to the divine because at least it serves some greater narrative purpose and contributes to interesting themes. Many may disagree, especially those who are not particularly religious. But should ambiguous and transcendent queer relationships be the new norm? Are they merely a convenient way to avoid explicit representation so that heteronormativity can remain comfortably unchallenged?

Steven Universe, among many things, is showing both overt queerness and a connection at least to the illogical. I’d expect this given its several homages to Revolutionary Girl Utena. There isn’t yet any sort of divine realm in Steven Universe (the diamond matriarchs could be the closest the show will get to divine figures), but there’s certainly a narrative of queer love and transcendence.

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Rose Quartz and Pearl encompass several Revolutionary Girl Utena references. The most obvious is the connection between Rose and “the Rose Bride.” In this sense, Rose is more of an Anthy figure. She’s always depicted in a white gown and she’s the one Pearl is always fighting for. Pearl, then, is Utena because she fights with a sword and some of her fight scenes parallel those in Utena. On the other hand, Rose is most like Utena because she’s the one who dies/takes on another form in Steven. This makes Pearl Anthy, as she’s trying to live on in Rose’s legacy.

Either way, the show makes it very clear that Rose and Pearl had feelings for each other. Plus, Rose at least has this transcendent/illogical element to her nature. There’s still a lot we don’t know, but Rose and Pearl show that telling a transcendent story doesn’t necessarily mean that queerness must be so vague that it’s easy to dismiss.

Garnet is especially illogical. She’s a fusion of two different gems, which was unheard of before Ruby and Sapphire accidentally fused. Garnet is the result of a relationship filled with such a deep love that she’s not only stable and very powerful, but she also confounds other characters just by existing (especially Peridot). Additionally, there’s nothing hidden or censored about Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship.

Steven Universe is breaking many molds while maintaining its popularity. It just may set a precedent for future stories that explore themes of transcendence and queerness. They do not have to be so subtle that they leave room for dismissal, but we can still find things worth analyzing in those subtle stories.

On Loving Rarity and Unlearning Internalized Misogyny

I fully realized/accepted during BronyCon 2016 that Rarity is my favorite pony.

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Technically, I more or less knew this last year and it should be obvious given that I spent a good five minutes talking about her in my 2015 panel. However, I still maintained that I didn’t really have a favorite pony.

At first, this choice seems a bit strange. After all, I’m not particularly feminine in my daily life nor do I aspire to be. I’m not a seamstress. I don’t care about the latest fashion trends. I don’t have a posh accent.

No, I’m nothing like Rarity unless perhaps we’re talking about generosity and loyalty to friends.

So how the hecky is she my favorite pony? Those who know me best would expect Applejack or Rainbow Dash or Twilight Sparkle to be my pick because I’m more like them than any of the others.

But for me, this turned out not to be about who I most identify with, but rather who is the hardest to love and who helps me unlearn internalized misogyny. The answer is Rarity.

According to survey results from the Brony Study team in 2014, Rarity is in last place as a fan favorite. I understand why. Her character design screams femme fatale and she certainly has her moments of being utterly insufferable.

I mean, I think she’s adorable and charming, but I digress.

Growing up, I dissociated myself from anything extremely feminine whenever I had the choice and whenever I wasn’t trying to be semi-attractive in a vain attempt to have my life follow the promises of compulsory heterosexuality. I thought Barbies were cool for a second, but most of the time I hated them and instead chose to play with Legos, Pokemon, dinosaurs, race cars, and stuffed animals. I created epics where any female characters who were like Rarity were villains, homewreckers, or stupid because that’s the message I internalized early on.

I hated girly things. Hated them. I knew that I wasn’t stupid or rude or bad, so I didn’t want to look like someone who was. When it came to the dichotomy between girl next door and femme fatale, I wanted to be on the protagonist’s side.

As I got older, I started adopting some aspects of traditional femininity because I chilled out a bit and because I really, truly believed that my life would become the youth group dream: meeting a nice, Christian man and having 2.5 kids raised in a strong, Christian home.

That dream unraveled in many ways, but stayed the same in some others. I’m not gonna get into that now. The point is that feminine expression became something that I just grew used to and accepted as something I just had to do eventually. A lot of it wasn’t so bad when I tried it.

But I don’t think I ever dealt with that internalized hatred against all things feminine.

Then along came My Little Pony, which my childhood self would never have touched with a ten foot pole. All it took was my roommate showing me the first episode of the pilot and I was hooked. This show had a story! It reminded me of Sailor Moon!

And it had a squad member who was extremely girly.

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However, I realized that Rarity carries herself differently than most characters like her. In fact, everything about Rarity is nuanced and it’s easy to miss those nuances if we dismiss her too quickly.

In the season 1 pilot, Rarity is confirmed as the element of generosity when she gives Steven Magnet her tail to replace the side of his mustache that had been torn off. At first glance, this seems like a pretty weak way to show generosity since it’s so grounded in fretting over outward appearance. However, I don’t think Rarity or Steven Magnet’s particularities about their appearance comes from being insecure or having self-esteem issues. Instead, I see their particularities as specific expressions of identities that they are quite comfortable with. Rarity knows who she is as an artist and an individual. Her fabulousness on the outside is an outpouring of the fabulousness on the inside. She gets upset when her mane isn’t coiffed because the outer self is not accurately representing the inner self.

How do we know that Rarity has such a strong sense of self and that the dresses and makeup are not impermanent ways of creating self-confidence where none exists?

Well, I think the answer is that Rarity is posh despite her family.

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Neither her parents nor Sweetie Belle are as flamboyant in their dress or mannerisms as Rarity is. The family isn’t at the top of Equestrian society nor do any of them show signs of wanting that life, so where did Rarity get it from? Perhaps she’s rebelling against an uncouth and mediocre upbringing. This could be why she and Applejack clash so much at first. Yet to distinguish oneself so much from one’s family suggests a powerful and secure sense of identity.

So I think Rarity very much knows who she is and she has very specific ways of declaring that to the world. This doesn’t mean that she never struggles with confidence issues–look at that whole Trenderhoof thing.

What’s refreshing about that episode, at least, is that the “desirable” version of femininity is the practical, worker type that Applejack exhibits. Many other times, when a girl in the TV show or movie is changing how she looks to impress a boy, she does so by becoming more traditionally feminine. Rarity tries (terribly) to become the opposite of herself for someone besides herself. That is among many reasons why her attempts are so laughably bad. Another is that her self as a fashionista is too strong to be contained. That inner fabulousness will always exert itself.

That inner fabulousness may also be why Rarity does things like choose the perfect hat for a stranger without being asked. On one level, it could be an intrusion (no one asked you, Rarity!). On another, it could be that Rarity perceives and inner fabulousness in everyone and constantly looks for ways to bring that out. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes she gets too caught up in playing by the rules of Equestrian high society (or helping others to play by those rules) that she forgets to focus on inner fabulousness.

Maybe all of this only makes sense to me, but that’s okay. I’m still not that feminine in my gender expression and probably won’t be for a lot of reasons (unless it’s 100 degrees outside or I’m in a wedding party), but I love this idea of not being particularly feminine myself and yet loving a very feminine character. It compels me to reject the tendency to roll my eyes and dismiss those girly girls.