Steven Universe: “Alone Together” Analysis

by tigermanifesto

Image00000001

“Alone Together” is the thirty-seventh episode of the Cartoon Network show Steven Universe to be broadcast. Considered in terms of the show’s developing plot, it has little importance, containing no revelations directly tied to its cosmic mythology or the character’s identities. This make it an outlier among the last twenty episodes, which have unfolded various twists and broadened the scope of the show’s subject matter. As its title suggests, this episode retreats inward, following the thirty-sixth episode’s introduction of new characters and complications with a small scale story about a so-far isolated event. In other words, it is light on incident. Its significance derives from its introduction of Stevonnie, a fusion of half-human half-gem protagonist Steven and his human friend Connie.

Stevonnie has inspired an avalanche of fan appreciation, much of it tangible and visible on the tumblr tag of the same name. This appreciation ranges from purely aesthetic to romantic, encompassing forms from cosplay to unofficial drawings. It also tends to accompany speculation about the character’s gender identity, as queer fans discuss the intricacies of whether the character is agender, genderfluid, or whether they fill some other non binary category. More than any other American animated show, the adult and teenage audience for the Steven Universe includes a large contingent of queer people, especially women and those who identify as gender outsiders of numerous stripes.

To fully assess the meaning of this episode, we have to move through a few layers of analysis. First, we will examine the apparatus of production behind “Alone Together.” Next comes an analysis of the class character of Steven Universe’s production staff and the cultural resources it draws on for this episode, focusing on conditions of late capitalism in the United States in 2014. Third, we’ll try to situate the show in a political context, focusing on issues of gender and connected issues of the family and intimacy. Within these three stages, we can address some specific aesthetic issues including the episode’s relation of dance to character relationships and its idealized portrait of gender relations in its universe.

StevonniePNG

Part 1: Cartoon Factory

The show is funded, produced, and linked to larger brand efforts by Cartoon Network, part of the Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., which is under the banner of Time Warner. Time Warner is one of the gigantic monopolies that controls the vast majority of mass cultural production in the United States. Cartoon Network is thus a single niche or tentacle for a much larger profit machine, creating programming largely aimed at children and younger boys in particular. Its corporate press page boasts, “Cartoon Network (CartoonNetwork.com) is consistently the #1 U.S. television network in prime among boys 6-11.”¹ Additionally, Steven Universe itself, as of February of last year, ranked number one in its 8pm time slot among both all kids from age two to fourteen and among “targeted” boys 6-11 and 9-14.² Such statements clarify Time Warner’s true interest in the show, which is as a marketing outreach to children––boys in particular, since they did not mention the show’s performance among girls.

time-warner

Whatever creator Rebecca Sugar and company wanted to accomplish with the show, the class of big capitalists above them are likely interested in programming like Steven Universe precisely because of the cynical numbers listed above. The show’s vaunted diversity is also much more likely to stir executives’ imaginations because of its appeal to what Nielsen––the company that accumulates and publishes media data––calls “the multicultural consumer.”³ Though the show often takes supposedly progressive positions on gender relations, the family, and so on (more on this in a moment), this may be read not as subversion but as the further commoditization of queerness, the conversion of oppositional populations into rampant consumers who identify with products––including Steven Universe and its merchandise, potentially––as described by Nicholas Martin Arrivo:

Rather, capitalism has co-opted homosexuality and is wielding it as a tool, crafting imagery and definitions of “homosexuality” in order to push products, or rather, push subjectivities, shaping and sexualizing the way consumers view themselves and the world.⁴

So far, there does not appear to be any official merchandise featuring Stevonnie, but the production of products with which the show’s considerable queer audience can identify would be a major source of profit and bonus cultural prestige with left liberals who believe that collusion between big media capital and upwardly mobile middle class, mainly white, queer people to be progressive. We can sum up this way: “Alone Together” is a commodity, the product of a vertically integrated production process controlled ultimately by monopoly capital, which is more interested in marketing to ascendant consumer groups than overthrowing the patriarchy or any other exploitative or oppressive social structure. Of course, the episode cannot be narrowly defined in that way, and contradictions with the simplified scheme just stated emerge as soon as was analyze the class position of the show’s direct producers and creative staff.

Part 2: Knowledge Workers and a Consumer Setting

Cartoon Network Studios produces Steven Universe, on occasion with assistance from Rough Draft Studios in the Republic of Korea. Underneath that umbrella, most of the intellectual labor that goes into creating an episode like “Alone Together” falls under show runner Rebecca Sugar, who was an artist, writer, and songwriter for another show, Adventure Time, until 2013. The animation industry, like all appendages of mass media production, is administered by big capital but its primary “labor inputs” are educated white collar workers who have some advanced technical training––like Sugar’s at art-oriented high schools and colleges––that gives them relatively more control over the content of their work than an assembly line worker.⁵ Of course, their work is always subject to the approval of capital and the primacy of the profit motive, but within certain boundaries (not only monetary but also in terms of content determined by marketing demographic categories) they have free creative play. Mike Wayne reminds us of the dual role of this group as intellectuals reproducing relations of production and ideologies and as productive workers within enterprises:

From the point of view of the impact of their symbolic products, they may be engaged in reproduction (producing ideas and values, otherwise known as ideology, which legitimise the dominant social order); but, viewed from the point of view of production, it is clear that they produce commodities which realise surplus value for media capital, and, indeed, cultural goods as commodities have become increasingly important for capital investments and profits. There is, however, no necessary fit between the economic imperative and cultural values and, indeed, there are good reasons why they often diverge.⁶

In that last sentence, Wayne points to the fact that, though often allied to capital in material ways, the middle class “creative worker” operates at a remove from the values of their managers and employers. Indeed, this “cultural mass” of relatively privileged intellectual workers and white collar specialists is notoriously unstable, to the point where Lenin called them and other petty bourgeois a vacillating class.⁷ David Harvey, for his part, remarks that this class of cultural workers can take on either a parasitic or eclectic role in forming its identity, which is otherwise atomized and nebulous. Subservient to the money power of the bourgeoisie proper to mobilize their creative efforts and yet endowed with “cultural capital” and other privileges, they are subject to “movements of fashion, localism, nationalism, language, and even religion and myth” to a greater extent than other classes with firmer roots.⁸

charles-barsotti-wilson-what-exactly-is-a-knowledge-worker-and-do-we-have-any-on-the-staf-cartoon

Charles Barsotti Wilson

Sugar and the staff have created a cast of characters that represent this class above all others. Every character is either a service worker––Sadie and Lars at the doughnut shop, Steven’s father at a car wash––a small business owner––proprietors of the local restaurants––or white collar workers of some sort––Connie’s parents, a security officer and a doctor. Of course, Steven and his family of gems are without remuneration of any kind, and this is never brought up throughout the show. Presumably, the gems have an arrangement with Beach City, the town in which they live, but, again, this is left unmentioned.

Beach City itself is a nostalgic paradise of sorts, an idyllic tourist town apparently oriented around tourism. School appears to be optional, as no truancy officers have been after Steven despite his total absence from compulsory education. Depicted as a collection of soft but imposing hills and cliffs surrounding a nest of low houses and small shops, it serves as the perfect staging ground for the idealized environment the show generally chooses to employ on the show.

Steven himself is a consummate consumer, a typical child of late capitalism. Obsessed with pop culture ephemera, food product mascots, and low-quality local food, he has been modeled after Rebecca Sugar’s own younger brother Steven and can be read as the show’s “typical” child. His life embodies that of the production team’s class upbringing: eclectic, rootless, urban (despite the small-town setting), and oriented around consumption as an identity marker. Of course, this is peripheral to the focus of the show, which is on his heroic adventures and coming of age, but his characterization is so firmly rooted in consumer culture that it cannot be ignored. My main conclusion in this section is that the show’s setting embodies the class assumptions of urban knowledge workers in being disparate, eclectic, and rooted in the consumption of identity, which is otherwise difficult to form for such an atomized and individualistic social class.⁹

Part 3:  Political Stakes of the Family and Gender

“Alone Together” is the example par excellence of the political stance the show takes on gender and family issues. Steven’s domestic system is essentially three non-human characters identified as female or feminine raising one boy. There are no biological underpinnings for this relationship, since Rose, Steven’s mother, was not shown to be related to any of the gems. Rather, the family is founded on friendship and mentorship. There is a significant age and power imbalance––all the more profound since the gems are centuries old––but it is not a traditional family in any sense except that the relationships play out within a single home structure. Most of the time this unusual arrangement goes unquestioned, though in the episode “Fusion Cuisine” Steven’s friend Connie is embarrassed to introduce this strange family to her more traditional parents. This shows that Steven Universe is not merely naïve or idealistic, but that it is fully aware of what it is doing. Though the show does not have an overt pedagogical bent, in that there are no Very Special Episodes or didactic asides about the importance of tolerance or whatnot, it serves an important role in forming subjectivities and in transmitting messages about political issues to its largely young and young adult audience. We can return to Wayne, who reminds us, “Under capitalism, the elaboration and dissemination of ideas become specialised within a particular category of people who monopolise premium modes of knowledge.”¹⁰

Most of the time, the creators of Steven Universe have remained resolutely apolitical in discussing their creation. See several of Rebecca Sugar’s interviews for examples, including ones in which she mostly disregards her status as the first and only woman show creator in Cartoon Network’s history.¹¹ Interviews are always directed at other ends than just answering questions, so it is likely that this reticence to talk politics comes from both personal reluctance and the diplomacy of doing art under corporate auspices. Naturally, none of this reduces the political content of the show, since it is championing what I would define as a liberal pluralist politics of representation and “diversity.” It advocates multiculturalism and inclusiveness through representation, which is, not coincidentally, perceived as a genuine weapon of ideological struggle by its large adult fanbase.

maxresdefault

That commitment to representing marginalized populations extends beyond unconventional families. In “Alone Together,” Stevonnie has a child’s mind but an adult body, one that is drawn and portrayed though situations as immensely beautiful and capable. We see the character sprinting with ease, diving off of a cliff into the ocean, and dancing with instinctual virtuosity. Every character shown interacting with Stevonnie is smitten or awed with their beauty. This includes both male and female characters, notably in an early scene in the doughnut shop where the friendship/possibly romantic duo of Sadie and Lars give Stevonnie free doughnuts out of bashful amazement. At first, the new fusion revels in this attention, just as they revel in the pure expression of bodily autonomy––recall the running, dancing, and acrobatic dives. But the true arc of the episode comes from the writers exposing the continued rifts between the two minds inhabiting the body of Stevonnie and that body itself, or more precisely how people react to them.

The second half of the episode, which takes place at a local rave in a ruined building, their enjoyment of dancing evaporates, replaced by social anxiety and withdrawal. The episode visualizes this in a dreamlike sequence where Stevonnie is trapped inside a gigantic disco ball ringed with crystals. The bright lights and intense gazes of the other people at the rave are oppressive to them. Kevin, a young male character previously shown standing against a wall with contempt for the others, is impressed by their dancing skills and breaks through the crystal wall, addressing Stevonnie directly. He mistakes them for a woman, calling her “girl,” and “baby,” and begins sexual overtures, dancing in a way that is meant to impress his new love interest. The two children-in-one-body have no framework for dealing with this kind of cynical attention and bolt from the dance floor. Despite their joyous unity, the two characters feel isolated by people like Kevin, who are giving them unwanted attention. Finally, they split apart and laugh uproariously, finally relieved of the bizarre body that brought them initial joy and ultimate anguish.

Other characters sexualize Stevonnie, but they have no reference for reacting to this since they are mentally children. Here we see the show’s creative staff developing their premise in a believable way, but to the detriment of Steven Universe’s otherwise idealized portrayal of how gender politics are handled in Beach City. Introducing elements of real sexuality into the show, even subtly, leads to some thorny contradictions that leave the episode in a thematic jumble by the end. This is not wholly unwarranted, but it exposes the ungainly contradiction between the show’s need to keep itself appropriate for boys of a younger age while catering to adult fans. In fact, the children-vs-adults tensions in “Alone Together” could be seen as a loose allegory for this contradictory need to please two audiences: children who just want to have fun and adults who enjoy the show for its realistic social situations and willingness to deal with heavier dramatic material.

Steven Universe has never had pretensions of being a revolutionary show. It fastidiously avoids dramatizing political issues except in the most tangential of ways. Mostly, it functions as a fantasy, not just in the strict sense of genre but as an escapist outlet for imagining a more tolerant and easygoing world. Though it has worn its love of Revolutionary Girl Utena prominently on more than one occasion, it has none of that show’s engagement with larger political structures, preferring a softer and gentler approach that might court controversy but ultimately prefers to tease and insinuate rather than confront. There is merit to this approach, of course, but this conservatism has to be recognized and criticized if we are going to discern the truly revolutionary from the merely subversive. Subversion of this kind is easily encapsulated and marketed, and while it’s true that even revolutionary art can be commodified, Steven Universe’s origins in big capital and its creators’ own restrictions make it less exciting than it could be.


Notes:

1. Cartoon Network, “Cartoon Network Viewers ‘Believe in Steven,’ February 7, 2014, https://pressroom.turner.com/us/cartoon-network-viewers-“believe-steven”#.VQsmw0Id1V4.

2. Ibid.

3. Nielsen, “The Multicultural Edge: Rising Super Consumers,” abstract. March 18, 2015, http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports/2015/the-multicultural-edge-rising-super-consumers.html

4. Nicholas Martin Arrivo, “Selling Sexuality: A Critical Genealogy of Homosexuality and Capitalism,” https://twp.duke.edu/uploads/assets/Arrivo.pdf.

5. Mike Wayne, Marxism and Media Studies (Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2003), 17.

6. Ibid, 21.

7. For one among many instances see: Lenin, “The Class Origins of Present-Day and ‘Future’ Cavaignacs,” Pravda 83 (June 29, 1917), https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/jun/29.htm

8. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1989), 347-348.

9. For a kind of origin story for this brand of consumer “liberation” see John F. Kasson, Amusing the Million (New York: American Century).

10. Mike Wayne, 17.

11. Eric Kohn, ‘”Adventure Time’ Writer Rebecca Sugar on ‘Steven Universe,’ Being Cartoon Network’s First Female Show Creator And Why Pop Art Is ‘Offensive,’” Indiewire, November 1, 2013. http://www.indiewire.com/article/television/adventure-time-writer-rebecca-sugar-on-steven-universe.

Advertisements