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.

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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.

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.

Comparing Matriarchies: My Little Pony and Steven Universe

Both My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Steven Universe present matriarchal societies in which women fulfill the most powerful roles in their worlds. In My Little Pony, it’s the alicorn princesses. In Steven Universe, it’s the Great Diamond Authority. Yet both of these matriarchies show vastly different applications of power. Equestria’s matriarchy is more caring and collaborative while the Great Diamond Authority is strictly focused on colonialism and conquest.

Reasons why these two systems are so different vary. Some of it certainly has to do with the show creators’ intentions and the target audience for both series (Steven Universe, to me, seems aimed at slightly older children than My Little Pony). But a lot of it also has to do with the core ideals each society is built on.

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In My Little Pony, we’re largely made to view Princess Celestia’s rule as peaceful and just, especially as her court expands to Luna, Cadence, and Twilight Sparkle (who then forms a court of her own). The Elements of Harmony and the magic of friendship are the foundations on which everything else is built. In recent seasons, Twilight Sparkle especially has used her status as Princess of Friendship to reveal not just the power of friendship in general, but the power of redemptive friendship. In the Equestria that Twilight Sparkle now continues to shape through her position in this matriarchal hierarchy of alicorns, nothing that causes separation or despair is allowed to exist. If it does, it’s posited as antagonistic, or at least non-affiliated with Equestrian royalty.

This means that justice occurs through this system. Is it challenged at times? Absolutely. Are mistakes made? Of course. Is Princess Celestia a giant troll? Duh. But we don’t see oppression stemming from declarations made in Canterlot or from subtle notions that one race of pony is superior to the other two. Once Luna is free from Nightmare Moon, we don’t see an alicorn who wants to conquer. More recently, Twilight Sparkle’s actions both in the regular universe and in Equestria Girls extends an invitation to those who formerly tried to disrupt the foundation of harmony and friendship. Equestria’s royal matriarchy seems to adequately provide for the safety and well-being of its subjects. Ponies are allowed to live free, independent lives pursuing whatever occupations their cutie marks call them to. There aren’t many prominent examples of super strict class or gender expectations either.

In these ways, My Little Pony presents the opposite of real-life patriarchal structures that we’re more familiar with. It provides a hopeful answer to the question: what does a sociopolitical system not run by men look like? It’s peaceful, harmonious, and just.

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But Steven Universe gives us the opposite answer, or at least a criticism of the idea that simply placing women in authoritative roles typically held by men will necessarily create a more just society. Gems are an all-female alien race, so women naturally appear in every single role from ruler to techy to lackie. We’ve learned from the recent Steven Bomb (and other episodes too) that Homeworld has very strict and specific ideas about which gems are the most important and which are disposable or common. It’s not just that each gem has their own specific role. It’s that these roles seem hardwired in their very physical structures. Rubies are stout and headstrong because they’re made to protect. Peridots are tiny and have large heads partly because they’re adorable goobers, but also because they’re made to be technicians.

So it seems that gems are crafted to fit a particular role in the colonial and industrial Homeworld structure. It’s not 100% clear at this point if the Great Diamond Matriarchs are actually the creators of all gems, but it’s very clear that they run this well-oiled machine of a structure. This matriarchy is built on a foundation of supremacy and conquest. In our own world, we’ve seen these systems play out in the hands of men who had exclusive access to these powerful roles. Steven Universe is showing the same type of system, only with women filling those roles instead. It flips the script, but it also shows that it’s not enough to just change the gender of those in these roles. The meaning of those roles and the structure itself must also change.

Steven Universe gives us plenty of examples of this. Everything the Crystal Gems have done flies in the face of Homeworld’s values. They have left the structure and now defy it. Garnet is an anomaly not just because she’s a fusion, but because she’s a fusion of two different gems, which was unheard of until Ruby and Sapphire accidentally fused. Together, they redefine the purpose and implications of fusing.

Whereas My Little Pony posits that a system with clear hierarchies and traditional structures can be just if the ruling parties build their systems on foundations of redemption and harmony, Steven Universe suggests that justice can only be found outside of such systems. Homeworld structure cannot be redeemed or changed from the inside. Instead, gems must break away from it and dismantle it from the outside. Redemption and harmony are only possible outside of this system, as we’ve seen most recently with Peridot. In Steven Universe, a matriarchy that functions with the same roles we’ve seen in real-world patriarchies is just as harmful for its subjects, showing that keeping the system but swapping the genders isn’t enough of a step to enact actual change or justice.

This is why many feminist theories don’t suggest that replacing patriarchies with matriarchies is the ultimate goal. Those that do may be presenting a utopia of sorts, and while systems run by women certainly could be different than those run by men, there’s no guarantee that they would be the solution to oppression, especially if the power dynamics remain the same.

If there were to be a totally just matriarchy, it might be more like what we see in My Little Pony where all have access to the fundamental power on which the system runs (friendship in this case). Lack of friendship, no space for diversity, and no room for redemption or harmony are the things that threaten this system. When they creep in, we start seeing familiar things like classism (e.g., conflicts between unicorns, earth ponies, and pegasi). Equestria and its systems were more or less established to dismantle those threats rather than embrace them for the purpose of expanding territory or conquering other nations.

So, these two matriarchies give us different implications of women being system-builders, system-runners, and even system-breakers. As both series continue, we might see some more nuances–for example, other gems with high status might start questioning the system or ruling powers in Equestria might continue to become decentralized. Either way, both shows convey interesting explorations of feminine power and agency.

Wholeness Through Defectiveness: Reversing Homeworld’s -isms in Steven Universe

Steven Universe continues to prove itself an effective series that relays important messages and provides characters that allow its fans to speak to wider cultural issues. As a children’s fantasy story, it has the space to put social commentary in plain sight while passing it off as world-building. This is one of the great things about fantasy in general.

The most recent episodes as of this writing present to us a Peridot redemption arc which culminates in ten minutes of adorable shipping fuel in the form of Perithyst or Amedot or whichever ship name you prefer. Of course, this is (currently) just icing on the cake. Peridot’s dramatic shift in allegiances, though unintentional at first, has added some real depth to the story so far as, bit by bit, she reveals snippets of information both about this ominous “cluster” and about Homeworld.

Most intriguingly, we learn about Homeworld’s social structures and expectations through Peridot’s naïve yet blunt honesty. As someone who has lived and breathed Homeworld values for her entire existence, she can only accept them as natural and anything that contradicts them as “defective.”

Up until now, Peridot hasn’t had a reason to question her Homeworld view of the universe and it’s in her offensiveness (which is sometimes intentional and sometimes not) that we get a glimpse of a set of social structures present there.

We learn a few things about Homeworld’s social structures through Peridot:

  • Bigger is better. The huge, bulky gems are the most powerful and most revered. This is perhaps why Peridot built herself some limb enhancements. By proxy, smaller, lankier gems are unimportant (Pearl).
  • Individualism/noncommitment reigns supreme. “Fusion is just a cheap tactic to make weak gems stronger,” goes the memetic quote. Garnet violates this rule without a care. Peridot’s visible discomfort reveals that permafusion is seen as something disgusting on Homeworld.
  • Hybrids of organic beings and gems are so illogical that Peridot doesn’t even know what to think of Steven, but concludes that he must not be a proper gem if he’s not even completely a gem to begin with.

You’re Just a Pearl

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Peridot’s dismissal of Pearl is a metaphor for classism. Not only do her comments resurrect some of Pearl’s own insecurities, but they also confirm that those insecurities stem from how Pearl’s wider society views gems like her.* Pearls are mass-produced, weak, and not expected to do much of anything independently. After all, she’s just a pearl. She exists for entertainment (according to Peridot) and that’s it. While Pearl has spent her time unlearning this narrow definition of her worth, Peridot never considered that a pearl would be anything other than what they are on Homeworld. Yet Pearl is “defective” because she has surpassed the assumed and imposed limitations on her gem type. We, the audience, know that Pearl is a dynamic character who is just as competent on the battlefield as Amethyst and Garnet, but that dynamicness and competency defy the Homeworld –isms that have already defined Pearl’s worth and place in society. These notions are so deeply embedded in Peridot that she frankly states them as objective reasons why she should be the one to build the giant drill. Pearls aren’t technicians. They’re decorations.

However, the Crystal Gems don’t operate by Homeworld’s rules. Perhaps their “defective” nature initially prompted them to start breaking away from Homeworld’s values, but they certainly have physically separated themselves from that culture by living on Earth. Earth doesn’t have the same rules as far as gems go, so Pearl can become a master technician, Garnet can exist in peace as a permafusion, and Amethyst can remain blissfully unaware that she is essentially a runt.

Then comes Peridot to remind the Crystal Gems that Pearl can’t do anything on her own, Garnet is an abomination for remaining fused outside of dire circumstances, and Amethyst, the only proper gem, is still defective because Amethysts are supposed to be huge.

Illogical Permafusion

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Garnet might be the most offensive sight to Peridot. She learns to accept Pearl as a technician like herself and she holds Amethyst in the highest regard given her other choices (and Amethyst is the only one she actually apologizes to so far). She might not know how to fit Steven into her mental framework, but he’s currently the one that Peridot trusts most. Steven also has the most patience with Peridot and is willing to explain to her why her actions are hurtful to the other gems. Because Steven never lived on Homeworld, the things Peridot says do not affect him in the same way they affect Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl.

Even so, Peridot can’t fully justify dismissing Steven, her first ally. All that’s left is Garnet, the one defect among her new team members that she hasn’t yet tried to understand. Pearl proved her smarts and Amethyst’s small stature seems a minor point compared to the greater offenses that Peridot finds among the Crystal Gems.

Fusion is a metaphor for a lot of things: intimacy, friendship, marriage, sex, subjugation, power, confidence–the list goes on. Fusion without consent is abhorrent, especially to Garnet, yet her existence as a permafusion goes against a core Homeworld philosophy about fusion. It’s only a means to an end. Gems should be strong enough on their own to achieve their goals, so remaining a fusion stomps on that value. It’s not acceptable for two gems to stay fused.

But we, the audience, know how strong Garnet is because of the love and commitment between Ruby and Sapphire. Even when they fight, they never let anything permanently come between them. They are their own gems, but they also recognize the power they have when combined. Their insistence and preference of staying fused represents long-term commitment for reasons beyond the strength they gain by fusing. It’s this display of commitment without an ulterior motive that disgusts Peridot and we see similar reservations to commitment in our own world.

Commitment takes work and it’s terrifying and some may even consider it old-fashioned. Garnet shows us both the stability and the challenges of permafusion–of commitment. Ruby and Sapphire don’t live in perfect marital bliss all the time. They struggle. They disagree. They literally tear Garnet apart for an entire episode while they process their anger at Pearl.

That episode is enough fodder to prove the point to Peridot that Ruby and Sapphire are, in fact, weak on their own and therefore use fusion to rely on each other’s power. That may be true–after all, we haven’t seen Ruby and Sapphire separately in battle very much or at all. Becoming Garnet could very well be the only thing that gets them through a battle. The notion that a gem should be strong enough to hold their own makes very logical sense, but I think the sharp aversion to permafusion comes not from the perceived wrongness of remaining fused, but of identity loss. Do Ruby and Sapphire exist independently within Garnet, or have they lost some of themselves for the sake of fusion? When Ruby and Sapphire fuse and choose to remain so, their love quite literally makes them a new creation. They are not merely added onto one another, but combined into an entity that didn’t exist before.

The exact nature of Garnet or any fusion is difficult to describe. It’s comparable to the question about Jesus Christ’s humanity and his divinity, as well as conceptions of the trinity. Most Christians understand Jesus as both fully God and fully human, yet that image is a challenge to grasp. Is Garnet both fully Ruby and fully Sapphire? Perhaps. If Stephen were to approach Garnet and ask just Ruby a question, Ruby would certainly hear it and possibly answer, but so would Sapphire and Garnet. They are all one entity as Garnet.

This shares some similarities with Christian understandings of the trinity. Trinitarian doctrines are not things that I profess to be an expert on by any means–in fact, I had to reference one of my textbooks from college to refresh my memory on the trinity. Christians talk about one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creator, Savior, and Life-Renewer–pick your metaphor. Such syntax helps us begin to understand the triune nature of God. We could use this same syntax to talk about one Garnet who is Ruby and Sapphire, giving us another way to understand the nature and relationship of gems in a fused state.

Further details of how well this comparison works (or doesn’t) will have to wait for another post. The point I want to emphasize is that fusion–permafusion especially–seems to be something that’s not fully comprehensible and therefore intimidating or even frightening to consider. This may be why Homeworld has developed such a strong opinion about it and why they believe that fusion must only be done in dire circumstances.

The “Home” in Homeworld

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Peridot’s words and actions in these recent episodes, though hurtful, provide us with some interesting bits of world-building and great insight into the sociocultural context of Homeworld. The aversions to relational commitment, the compartmentalizing of particular gems into particular roles, and the elevation of bigger gems over small gems certainly mirror many aspects of our world. One last thing that connects them both together is that we have to say the word “home” whenever we talk about Homeworld.

Home has many complex meanings, not all of them good. Ideally, home should be a place of comfort and refuge. It could be a place one has come from or a place where one will go in the future (either in life or after death). Home can be a source of great joy or great pain. No matter our relationship with home, it’s always something close to us, something that’s been established in our lives.

So when we talk about Homeworld or analyze what seem to be some of its deep-seeded values, we subtly invoke the notion of “home,” which means we can’t fully dismiss it as a mere fictional universe. The things that Peridot says and believes–the things that the Crystal Gems have had to unlearn and reconstruct in their time away from Homeworld–are things that really aren’t too separate from many of our own realities after all.

How is any of this reversed? When we talk about –archies and –isms, we’re usually dealing with complex, established systems. Yet if Homeworld is our world in any sense, then we already have examples of unlearning and rebuilding in the Crystal Gems. We’ve seen Pearl struggle with and break out of the mindset that she’s only one piece of a mass-produced decoration. We’ve seen Garnet prove in battle that being a permafusion is a point of strength, not weakness, and Amethyst’s size was never even a significant issue until Peridot brought it up. By embracing their “defectiveness,” the Crystal Gems move closer to wholeness because they have recognized that Homeworld values are not unchangeable truths and breaking away from them can often be healthy.

Most poignant is how the Crystal Gems’ wholeness through defectiveness gives them a much better capacity to grant Peridot some grace as she begins to unlearn some of the prejudiced beliefs that she simply thought were essential truths. She believes that she’s merely stating facts instead of perpetuating harmful ideologies until she recognizes the falsity of her claims (Pearls cannot be technicians) and the effects her words have on others (Amethyst is a runt). The Crystal Gems don’t coddle her and they’re certainly not afraid to call her out (or put her on a leash). But they give her a chance and they understand by the end of “Too Far” the work it’ll take for Peridot to learn another way of conceptualizing gems and the entire universe.


*I’d be remiss not to link this excellent reading of Pearl as Asian-coded, which emphasizes her importance as a representation of non-white experiences.

 

The Garnet #BlackLivesMatter Mural and the Power of Fictional Characters

During the Baltimore uprising, I made this post with some brief reactions I had at the time as well as a collection of articles for more in-depth reading. I reflected on how the kind of criticism I do on this blog is easy, in a sense, because narrowing down the broad topic of intersectionality to its presence (or lack thereof) in fictional stories is easy. Representation matters. Absolutely. However, we rarely see any direct connections between representation in fiction and real-world change. It’s great to have more shows with more black characters, for example, but those shows don’t have a direct impact on laws or on fatal police encounters. Any positive changes that diverse representation makes are more long-term and formative, especially for children who will one day grow up with whatever lessons today’s stories have taught them.

Yet I think so many people are passionate about discussing, unpacking, and calling for intersectionality in fiction because we all know that fictional characters are powerful icons and role models. Such power ought to exist in more than just able-bodied cishet white guys. Also, because fiction is so often a gateway to understanding and loving people who are different from you, it easily becomes transformative and empowering when it does diversity well. Some characters rise up from the screen or the page and become symbols of the larger struggles our culture faces.

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You can see better pictures here on Markus’s tumblr.

I snapped this photo of a slide during one of the Bronycon panels I went to. Just a couple weeks before, this Garnet mural by artists Markus Prime and Ivben Taqiy went viral. It’s a provocative piece that effectively shows why representation matters and how a character from a children’s cartoon can become an empowering figure that embodies the zeitgeist of a generation. Garnet–a black, queer woman who is literally a manifestation of queer love–is a cool, amazing character in her own right. She’s definitely a great example of the kind of intersectional representation people need and respond to well. Prime and Taqiy responded to Garnet’s existence by creating this mural and overtly connecting Garnet to a real-world movement that is no doubt deeply personal to them. It’s a little safer to make Garnet this resistant icon because she’s fictional, and because she’s also well-known and well-liked, she draws more attention to #BlackLivesMatter.

The thing is, this fanart might not have ever been made if Steven Universe was full of white male characters. But because the creators wanted to showcase non-white and non-male people, the characters become icons for fans to use to speak to the wider culture. This is one of the beauties of reader-response criticism. Once a story is out there for audiences to respond to, any part of it has the potential to speak potent messages like this because works keep living as people keep responding to them.

Garnet is a hero, literally in the show but also figuratively. As a Crystal Gem, she always saves the day and that’s why the world believes in her (and Amethyst and Pearl and Steven). She shows that black women are desirable, that black people can be interesting, complex characters just like anyone else, and that queerness need not be tragic or dramatic. It makes perfect sense that she would inspire this kind of mural.

This is why fictional stories and fictional characters actually are powerful and can be agents of change. This is why diversity in fiction is important. Most writers dream of their work changing the world or making people think somehow and shows like Steven Universe are good examples of how to do that.