Steven Universe Episode 14: Lars and the Cool Kids

steven universe lars and the cool kids screen shot lars steven sour cream jenny and buck
Left to right: Lars, Steven, Sour Cream, Jenny, and Buck

Ingrid and I are re-watching Steven Universe, and I’m blogging some of my observations and reactions, about individual episodes and the show as a whole. These posts will probably make more sense if you’ve seen the show, but I hope they inspire the rest of you to check it out, as it’s one of the richest and most emotionally intense things I’ve seen on TV. This post contains spoilers about Steven Universe: the show as a whole, and/or about Episode 14: Lars and the Cool Kids.

“Gettin’ me a P. Gettin’ me a za. Gettin’ me a P-P-P-P-pizza!”

Lots of Steven Universe episodes are about kids’ relationships with adults. This one is unusual, in that it’s mostly about young people’s relationships with each other.

I have this vivid memory from middle school. I was sitting near a group of cool kids and one girl who was cool-kid adjacent: she wasn’t in the inner circle, but she hung out with them sometimes and clearly wanted them to accept her. The adjacent girl said she liked Olivia Newton-John; one of the cool kids said something like “Ew, I hate her so much, with that high squeaky voice” — and the adjacent girl got flustered and quickly said, “Oh, yeah, I hate her too.” I remember it to this day. It was so sad, and so transparent. If I noticed it, surely the girls she was talking to must have noticed it as well. Like, were they not going to remember what she said literally fifteen seconds ago? Were they not going to remember how the topic of Olivia Newton-John came up?

I have more sympathy for her now than I did at the time. At the time, I was kind of contemptuous: I have a bit more insight now into human frailty in general and my own in particular, and can recognize all the times I’ve done the same thing or similar. I can’t remember openly reversing myself like that (although I probably have), but I’ve certainly expressed opinions and then kept my mouth shut when others around me scoffed. Being a social human being is hard. It’s especially hard for kids and teenagers, when you’re just starting to form a social identity and social life separate from your family. It’s easy to say “Just be yourself” — but what if your natural self is awkward, self-conscious, and bad at talking with people you don’t know well? Continue reading “Steven Universe Episode 14: Lars and the Cool Kids”

Steven Universe Episode 14: Lars and the Cool Kids

10 Pop Culture Characters Who Stayed Friends or Lovers With Their Rapists

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O Hara in Gone with the Wind

“Well, sure, he raped her. But it’s not a big deal. Rape, shmape. All friendships and relationships have their ups and downs. They can still be friends, or get married. Heck, maybe the rape could be the start of a beautiful love story.”

Does this sound like an absurdist attempt at ghoulish humor? It’s not. This trope is all over pop culture, and has been for decades. In some stories, rapes happen while characters are friends, lovers, or married, and the relationship goes on as if little or nothing happened. In others, rapes are the beginning of a happy relationship.

Here are 10 characters in pop culture who voluntarily stayed friends, lovers, colleagues, or spouses with the people who raped or tried to rape them.

*****

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, 10 Pop Culture Characters Who Stayed Friends or Lovers With Their Rapists. To read more, read the rest of the piece.

10 Pop Culture Characters Who Stayed Friends or Lovers With Their Rapists

Steven Universe Episode 13: So Many Birthdays

Steven Universe so many birthdays image pearl amethyst garnet and lion in birthday hats

Ingrid and I are re-watching Steven Universe, and I’m blogging some of my observations and reactions, about individual episodes and the show as a whole. These posts will probably make more sense if you’ve seen the show, but I hope they inspire the rest of you to check it out, as it’s one of the richest and most emotionally intense things I’ve seen on TV. This post contains spoilers about Steven Universe: the show as a whole, and/or about Episode 13: So Many Birthdays.

“I never realized birthdays meant leaving things behind.”

Adults and kids are sometimes like alien species. It can be so hard for kids to understand adults, and vice versa. When I was growing up, adulthood seemed both glamorous and alarming: I though teenagers were the most sophisticated creatures on the planet and I couldn’t wait to get into high school, but at the same time I fought like a tiger whenever I’d grown out of clothes I liked. Kids have a hard time even parsing age: I could never grasp that adults had limits to their energy and physical ability, and yet anyone over thirty seemed ancient. Adults have a slight edge here, in that they’ve been kids in the past, but that advantage can undercut itself: adults often think that because they were once kids, they must understand them. In Steven Universe, the gems’ alien-ness is a metaphor for a lot of things — but one of the most important, I think, is the age gap, and it makes for one of the most emotionally poignant episodes of the show. Continue reading “Steven Universe Episode 13: So Many Birthdays”

Steven Universe Episode 13: So Many Birthdays

Steven Universe Episode 12: Giant Woman

Steven Universe Giant Woman

Ingrid and I are re-watching Steven Universe, and I’m blogging it. I’m not writing these posts as a series summary or recap: I’m just writing down some of my observations and reactions, about individual episodes and the show as a whole. These posts will probably make more sense for people who have seen the show, but I hope they inspire the rest of you to check it out, as it’s one of the richest and most emotionally intense things I’ve seen on TV. This post contains spoilers about Steven Universe: the show as a whole, and/or about Episode 12: Giant Woman.

“All I wanna do/Is see you turn into/A giant woman…”

OMLOG this episode tho! There is so much about this episode, both the content itself and the meta. SO MUCH CONTENT! SO MUCH META! ALL THE THINGS!

Content first: Kids are fascinated by adult life and adult relationships. Older kids especially.

I have vivid childhood memories of family gatherings, being put to bed and overhearing the adults as they lived their adult, non-kid-centered lives: drinking, playing card games that were beyond me, gossiping about people I didn’t know and behavior I didn’t comprehend, discussing politics that seemed boring but that I could still tell were important, laughing uproariously at jokes I didn’t understand. I remember being a little older — like, twelve or so — and starting to hang out at my parents’ late-night parties, watching and listening and trying to figure it all out. (A difficult task, since the people were stoned much of the time — I’m a child of the Seventies.) And I remember pestering the adults in my life to explain things that were beyond my comprehension, or none of my business, or both.

So I totally understand Steven learning about fusion and immediately becoming obsessed with it and wanting to see it. (For people who aren’t watching the show and don’t mind spoilers: The Crystal Gems are sentient gems who project humanoid forms, and they can fuse together to form a single larger being with the combined strength and skill of both or all of them.) Once Steven learns about fusion, he’s FASCINATED by it. He does that thing kids do — some adults, for that matter — where they get fixated on a thing they want and absolutely will not drop it, and everything that happens becomes just another excuse for bringing the thing up one more time.

And kids have a lot invested in adults getting along. It’s hard when the adults around you are fighting. It feels very unstable, and it can be upsetting and even scary. I can see that being especially true for a kid like Steven, who’s emotionally sensitive and highly invested in the people around him getting along. Steven’s relentless fixation on Pearl and Amethyst fusing isn’t just about discovering this new form of adult relationship and being fascinated with it. It’s about him wanting Pearl and Amethyst to quit fighting and get along. (And, of course, it’s about Steven’s ever-present admiration for female strength, in all its forms.)

But it’s reasonable for Pearl and Amethyst to draw a boundary. Their squabbling isn’t super productive, but they have a right to have their relationship be their relationship. It’s reasonable for them to fuse on their own terms, for their own reasons — not to entertain Steven. And while Steven is usually a very sensitive person, his personal desire for Pearl and Amethyst to get along actually gets in the way of his sensitivity and empathy. Wanting other people to get along is understandable — but sometimes people have real differences, and they need to work it out on their own.

Now to the meta:

This episode is where Steven Universe really kicks into gear, and it’s what I’ve taken to calling the “you’re in or you’re out” episode. If I’m evangelizing about SU to friends, and they say they’ve watched a couple of episodes but the show hasn’t grabbed them, I always ask, “Have you seen ‘Giant Woman’ yet?” If they haven’t, I ask them to stick with it. If they have, I’m like, “Yeah, if you’ve seen ‘Giant Woman’ and you haven’t fallen in love with the show, you probably won’t.”

Episodes one through eleven are great, but to a great extent they’re world-building, and emotionally they’re fairly straightforward. Starting with “Giant Woman,” the show starts getting more nuanced, more complicated, more emotionally intense, and often more unsettling. And of course, this is the episode that introduces fusion, which becomes HUGELY important throughout the series — not just as a plot point, but as a metaphor for connection and love.

I’ve enjoyed writing up these first twelve episodes. But I’m super-excited now to be getting into what I see as the meat of the show. In particular, I can’t wait to write about “Mirror Gem/ Ocean Gem,” “Coach Steven,” “Alone Together,” “Winter Forecast,” “Jail Break” (of course), “Keeping It Together,” and “Message Received,” about which I have VERY STRONG opinions and feels. Stay tuned!

Ingrid comment: She loves this episode, among many other reasons, because it’s the first one where an entire full-length song is built into the episode, and the first one where the song coming into being (i.e., being made up by Steven) moves the plot along and is part of the story. Music is an important part of the show, and this is the first episode where it’s really important. She’s struck — as am I — by the line in the song where Steven sings, “But if it were me/ I’d really wanna be/A giant woman.” Gender fluidity and gender non-conformity is also a theme that comes up a lot in this show, as is Steven’s comfort with taking women as role models, and it’s nice to see it here. She also thinks the mountain-climbing and stair-climbing scenes are referencing the “Return My Love” sequence in the Bugs Bunny “What’s Opera Doc?” cartoon (Another gender-bending cartoon icon!)

Steven Universe Episode 12: Giant Woman

Steven Universe Episode 11: Arcade Mania

Steven Universe Arcade Mania

Ingrid and I are re-watching the entire Steven Universe series — yet again — and I thought I’d blog some of my observations. Please note: I’m not writing these as a series summary or recap. I’m just writing down some of my observations and reactions, about individual episodes and the show as a whole. These posts will probably make more sense if you’ve already seen the show, but I hope they inspire the rest of you to check it out, as it really is one of the richest and most emotionally intense things I’ve seen on TV. This post contains spoilers about Steven Universe: the show as a whole, and/or about Episode 11: Arcade Mania.

“Welcome to a Wonderland of fun-tronic game-ventions!”

Kids learning that adults aren’t perfect. This is a huge amount of what Steven Universe is about. It crops up again and again: in episode after episode, Steven learns that adults make mistakes, don’t have all the information, have incorrect information, show poor judgement, are too protective or not protective enough, face difficult situations with no good answer, and have feelings and wishes and traumas of their own that make them screw up.

“Arcade Mania” is striking because it’s Garnet who screws up. Generally, when Steven learns that adults aren’t perfect, he learns it from Pearl or Amethyst or Greg, or even from Rose in the stories he hears about her. But this time, it’s Garnet who gets sucked into the arcade game, who gets so hypnotized by it that she can’t see or hear the huge fight going on behind her.

This is very unlike Garnet. Of the Crystal Gems, she’s by far the most responsible, and the most balanced. But in very classic Steven form, Garnet’s weakness is the flipside of her strength. Earlier in the episode, Garnet shows that her fighting skills are tied in with her ability to go with the flow, to get lost in the action. But in a fight, there’s a natural end to the action — someone wins the fight. An arcade game can keep supplying action indefinitely. (This one can, anyway.) Garnet’s not used to that, and she doesn’t know how to adjust, or even that there’s anything to adjust to. Garnet playing the arcade game is very much like Garnet fighting — only in this case, her powerful ability to get drawn into the flow of a fight becomes a weakness, an inability to get out of the flow when circumstances demand it.

I think this is very common. Our weaknesses are often the flipsides of our strengths, and vice versa. Responsible, competent people can also be self-conscious, anxious, and second-guessing. Flexible, easy-going people can be flaky. Detail-oriented people can be overly perfectionist and fixated on trivialities. Intuitive people can rely too much on intuition. Brainiacs can overthink. Our weaknesses are often our strengths, taken to extremes, or applied in the wrong situations.

So I’m going to modify my thesis bit. In episode after episode, Steven learns that adults aren’t perfect — and that this is okay.

Side notes: I also think it’s not an accident — SUPER SPOILER ALERT FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVEN’T SEEN THE “JAILBREAK” EPISODE — that Garnet gets sucked into a dancing game, and is so extraordinarily good at it. Dancing is how fusion happens, and we know how important fusion is to Garnet. She’s the one who’s most invested in Steven learning to fuse, and who’s most unabashedly happy when he does; she the one who gets super freaked out when she sees the creepy, non-consensual fusion experiments. It makes sense: Garnet is a fusion, all the time. It makes sense that she would care so much about it — and that a dancing game would captivate her attention.

And I’m very entertained by the fact that the arcade game is called Meat Beat Mania. It’s a classic example of a joke that adults will find hilarious while going right over lots of kids’ heads. “Just shake the meat to the beat!”

Ingrid comment: Ingrid thinks Garnet is good at this game because of her future vision. She can anticipate the dance moves before they happen, and that’s why she never makes a mistake. Also, Ingrid doesn’t like how cavalier the Gems are about the damage they do to Beach City. That shows up in a lot of episodes, and this is one of them.

Steven Universe Episode 11: Arcade Mania

Steven Universe Episode 10: Steven’s Lion

steven universe episode 10 stevens lion 1

Ingrid and I are re-watching the entire Steven Universe series — yet again — and I thought I’d blog some of my observations. Please note: I’m not writing these as a series summary or recap. I’m just writing down some of my observations and reactions, about individual episodes and the show as a whole. These posts will probably make more sense if you’ve already seen the show, but I hope they inspire the rest of you to check it out, as it really is one of the richest and most emotionally intense things I’ve seen on TV. This post contains spoilers about Steven Universe: the show as a whole, and/or about Episode 10: Steven’s Lion.

“You’re like the cotton candy of the jungle!”

Lion!

Lion, Lion, Lion, Lion, Lion, Lion, Lion, Lion, LION!

When you ask Steven Universe fans which character they identify with most — not their favorite, but the one they identify with — it seems, from my not-at-all scientific observations, that the most common answers are Amethyst and Pearl.* People who are more anxious and detail-oriented identify deeply with Pearl; people who are more casual and impulsive identify with Amethyst. When I thought about which Stevenverse characters I identified with most, though, for a while I was stuck. I’m anxious, but nowhere near as much as Pearl; I’m impulsive, but nowhere near as much as Amethyst. I have some things in common with many of the characters, but none of them jumped out as my personal stand-in.

And then it struck me: Lion.

Lion is a sensualist, a lover of food and naps. Lion is not very attentive to authority: he’s not defiant of authority, so much as he is baffled by the very idea. When he’s asked or told to do something, he first has to understand why it’s important (or why it would benefit him: in “It Could’ve Been Great,” Steven has to explain to him that the destruction of the earth will mean the loss of treats and naps). Lion also tends to get lost in his own private world, and he can be a little clueless about what other people want from him. But Lion is also intensely affectionate, and fiercely loyal. Lion will go to great lengths to help and protect Steven and others he cares about. (Well, mostly Steven.) Yup — I’m Lion.

Also — kitty! (If you haven’t seen the Lion in a Box video, check it out immediately.) Continue reading “Steven Universe Episode 10: Steven’s Lion”

Steven Universe Episode 10: Steven’s Lion

Frivolous Friday: Meta-Merch

Frivolous Fridays are the Orbit bloggers’ excuse to post about fun things we care about that may not have serious implications for atheism or social justice. Any day is a good day to write about whatever the heck we’re interested in (hey, we put “culture” in our tagline for a reason), but we sometimes have a hard time giving ourselves permission to do that. This is our way of encouraging each other to take a break from serious topics and have some fun. Enjoy!

One of my favorite super-nerdy pop-culture phenonema is meta-merch: T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other swag that advertise, not the show or the characters in the show, but products or shows or games that are featured in the show.

Examples: Ingrid has a Crying Breakfast Friends T-shirt from Steven Universe:

crying breakfast friends shirt

And I might get a Cookie Cat shirt at some point:

Cookie Cat shirt
Continue reading “Frivolous Friday: Meta-Merch”

Frivolous Friday: Meta-Merch

Frivolous Friday: The Molecular Mixology Scene from Parks and Recreation

Frivolous Fridays are the Orbit bloggers’ excuse to post about fun things we care about that may not have serious implications for atheism or social justice. Any day is a good day to write about whatever the heck we’re interested in (hey, we put “culture” in our tagline for a reason), but we sometimes have a hard time giving ourselves permission to do that. This is our way of encouraging each other to take a break from serious topics and have some fun. Enjoy!

Parks and Recreation Molecular Mixology bar from Two Parties

One of the things I like best about Parks and Recreation is that the humor is exaggerated enough to be absurd, while being close enough to reality to be identifiable. I can laugh at the foibles I recognize in myself and other people, without it being so awkwardly recognizable that it makes me squirm. It’s more like, “Lord, what fools we mortals be!”

The Molecular Mixology scene from the Two Parties episode is a prime example. I have never, in fact, been to this bar, it’s ridiculous — and yet I have totally been to this bar.

I also love the fact that the bachelor party starts off with a rousing game of “Settlers of Catan.”

Frivolous Friday: The Molecular Mixology Scene from Parks and Recreation

Frivolous Friday: The Dungeons & Dragons Sex Scene from “Community”

community-annie-dungeons-and-dragons-hector-the-well-endowed

Frivolous Fridays are the Orbit bloggers’ excuse to post about fun things we care about that may not have serious implications for atheism or social justice. Any day is a good day to write about whatever the heck we’re interested in (hey, we put “culture” in our tagline for a reason), but we sometimes have a hard time giving ourselves permission to do that. This is our way of encouraging each other to take a break from serious topics and have some fun. Enjoy!

This may be the hottest, kinkiest, funniest sex scene I’ve seen on prime-time broadcast TV.

I’ve been re-watching Community, a smart, well-written, mostly good-natured comedy show that plays like TV Tropes in sitcom form, with episodes riffing on Westerns, Star Wars, Ken Burns documentaries, M*A*S*H, The Breakfast Club, and more, more, more. The other day I watched the “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” episode (S2 E14) — and this scene jumped out at me, for reasons that will become obvious when you watch it. (Brief setup: The group is playing Dungeons & Dragons, Abed is the Dungeonmaster who at the moment is playing the role of an elf maiden, Annie is playing Hector the Well-Endowed.) I love the gender-switching in the role-play; I love Troy taking notes; I love, love, LOVE the moment when Annie holds up two fingers, then three, then four, then folds her thumb under. It’s amazing what TV writers manage to get away with, using just a little inventiveness.

(Content note: There’s a bit of not-great consent at the beginning, in a fantasy play-acting context.)

BTW, if anyone knows how to lip-read, I’d love to know what the characters are saying.

Frivolous Friday: The Dungeons & Dragons Sex Scene from “Community”

Steven Universe Episode 9: Tiger Millionaire

Steven Universe Steven and Amethyst as Tiger Millionaire and Purple Puma

Ingrid and I are re-watching the entire Steven Universe series — yet again — and I thought I’d blog some of my observations. Please note: I’m not writing these as a series summary or recap. I’m just writing down some of my observations and reactions, about individual episodes and the show as a whole. These posts will probably make more sense if you’ve already seen the show, but I hope they inspire the rest of you to check it out, as it really is one of the richest and most emotionally intense things I’ve seen on TV. This post contains spoilers about Steven Universe: the show as a whole, and/or about Episode 9: Tiger Millionaire

“Pumas are cool!”

OMLOG, so much going on with this episode! At least three major themes: learning to accept other’s imperfections, learning that different social arenas have different rules, and gender fluidity.

I believe this is the first time we’ve seen Amethyst alter her gender presentation.* Most of the time she presents as female, and that seems to be the form that comes most naturally to her — but in most of “Tiger Millionaire,” Amethyst shapeshifts into the form of a male wrestler, the Purple Puma.** What I find interesting is that nobody thinks this is interesting. Everyone takes it in their stride, and it’s not the point of the episode. Steven is fascinated by the fact that Amethyst can shapeshift, and he’s super-impressed that she (he? not sure what the right pronoun is here) has a second life as an underground wrestler — but the fact that the wrestler form is male isn’t blinked at, by Steven or anyone else. Gender fluidity comes up more than once in Steven Universe, and I find it really interesting that in “Tiger Millionaire,” the episode where it’s first explored at any length, it’s central to the storyline, and at the same time is widely accepted and is no big deal.

The more overt theme, IMO, is learning that different social arenas have different rules. Steven is fascinated to learn that there’s a world — the wrestling world — where playing at being mean is acceptable and people voluntarily step into the ring to pound on each other. He’s ordinarily such a sweet, generous, affectionate kid, and most of his life with the gems is spent learning to be a good person and a good gem. So unsurprisingly, when he’s given a chance to play-act at being a mean-spirited, conniving jerk, he jumps at it.

But he takes it too far. Continue reading “Steven Universe Episode 9: Tiger Millionaire”

Steven Universe Episode 9: Tiger Millionaire