Steven Universe Pearl and Rose Quartz
Cartoons, Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Society and Politics, Visual Cultural Theory

Won’t Somebody Please Think Of The Children? – Steven Universe And The ‘Gay Agenda’ In Kid’s Cartoons

Originally posted on the Fanny Pack blog on February 3rd 2016.


 

won't somebody please think of the children the simpsons helen

Well, won’t they?

One of the most enduring myths about homosexuality that it’s opponents cling to dearly is that it’s a choice, and by extension, the threat that it poses to children if this choice is ever allowed to worm it’s way into the developing brains. Rather than considering the idea that external influences only awaken or reinforce existing parts of our sexual subconscious, LGBTQ rights’ opponents often characterise any discussion of sexual orientation in schools or media as a brainwashing toxin of a sinister ‘gay agenda’ seeping into the sensitive minds of the youth – tricking their ‘naturally’ heterosexual brains into pondering devious sexual behaviour.

seduction of the innocent book cover

Frederic Wertham’s 1954 book asserted that Batman and Robin’s “hidden” romance would impact negatively on young comic book readers.

Sexual ‘deviancy’ in adults can apparently be treated with regular visits to your local conversion camp, or simply marrying someone of the opposite sex and suppressing all those unnatural urges to do what comes naturally to you. But before it’s too late, how do you prevent all those liberal influences from ‘recruiting‘ children into homosexuality? In schools, regulation of the curriculum can be very effective. Only twelve states in the US require teachers to discuss sexual orientation, and even more disturbingly: three of those twelve dictate that teachers only impart negative information. In 1988, the UK government passed the now infamous Section 28 amendment, stating that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. (This harmful legislation wasn’t repealed until 2003 after years of hard-fought campaigning from pressure groups like Stonewall.)

That leaves the other major influence in most children’s lives: cartoons. Like every other form of mass commercial entertainment, cartoon creators have to continually walk a fine line between cookie-cutter commercialism and original artistic expression; between pleasing their ratings-obsessed executives and staying true to their visions as storytellers. But what do you do when this vision involves a young boy being raised by a group of lesbian alien super-heroines? How much of this vision are you going to be allowed to stay true to before your network bosses start to catch a whiff of that ‘gay agenda’ you’re obviously trying to push on unsuspecting children?

Steven Universe Cartoon Network

The cast of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe: (clockwise from left) Amethyst, Garnet, Pearl and Steven

This is a question that ‘Steven Universe’ creator Rebecca Sugar has had to face in the wake of Cartoon Network UK’s decision to censor an episode of the show that recently aired in the UK. You may think I’m joking about the lesbian alien super-heroine thing. I’m not. Three of the show’s main characters form part of an all-female team called ‘The Crystal Gems’ who come from a similarly all-female planet of imperialistic aliens whose personalities and powers derive from gemstones. When one of their members – ‘Rose Quartz’ – falls in love with a male human on Earth, she sacrifices her own body in order to have their half-human, half-gem-powered son: Steven Universe. The Crystal Gems soon adopt him into the team to replace his mother and essentially act as surrogate mothers/aunts/sisters.

Steven's parents: Rose Quartz and Greg Universe

Steven’s parents: Rose Quartz and Greg Universe

The controversial scene in question comes from an episode in which it becomes clear that one of the Crystal Gems – ‘Pearl’ – had romantic feelings for Rose Quartz. These feelings were only intensified when Rose Quartz started to find herself drawn strangely to Greg. As in typical with Steven Universe, these feelings eventually came to a head in a musical number called ‘What Can I For You’, which is where the censorship comes into play.

Interestingly Cartoon Network US didn’t make the same censorship decision as their UK counterpart, leading to fans of the show creating side-by-side comparisons of the censored and uncensored versions of the same scene:

Two women dancing intensely… Hmm. It’s almost disappointing how un-gay the scene actually is. Following a very vocal backlash online from the show’s adult fans, the network defended it’s decision with this statement:

“In the UK we have to ensure everything on air is suitable for kids of any age at any time. We do feel that the slightly edited version is more comfortable for local kids and their parents. […] Be assured that as a channel and network we celebrate diversity – evident across many of our shows and characters.”

However, as Pink News points out, this decision conflicts with the BBFC’s ‘U’ rating guide (the rating which all Cartoon Network shows for children aim for):

“Characters may be seen kissing or cuddling and there may be references to sexual behaviour. However, there will be no overt focus on sexual behaviour, language or innuendo.”

It’s also notable that this is a repeated decision from Cartoon Network, who also censored a gay kiss on an episode of Clarence last year between what some consider to be the first overtly gay characters in a children’s cartoon. This would have been more of an impressive milestone if it not for the fact that these two men merely served as the punch-line to a joke in the episode about a woman being stood up for a blind date, rather than central protagonists – as is too often the case with any LGBTQ inclusion in children’s media. Subtext and throwaway humour has sadly long been the modus operandi of any writer/animator in order to slip anything ‘covertly’ gay past possible censorship. Other recent examples include Gobber from How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Oaken from Frozen.

Frozen's Oaken waves to his family

Oaken waves to his implied family in Disney’s ‘Frozen’.

What makes Steven Universe different from any other of these examples is that the sexual orientation of its characters is far from throwaway. Just like the mythical island of Themyscira (home of Wonder Woman), all the gems hail from a single-gendered planet meaning that the only romantic relationships they have the option of pursuing within their own species are same-sex ones. Whereas as we live in a hetero-normative society, they live in a homo-normative one. Needless to say the show also passes the Bechdal test with flying colours.

The gems also possess the ability to fuse with one another to become stronger, which they can only achieve through dancing in perfect synchronisation to fuse both body and soul. Some of these fusion rituals are harmlessly flirtatious but others can be more meaningful. For example, it is revealed later in the show that [SPOILER ALERT] the body of the leader of the Crystal Gems – ‘Garnet’ – is actually the result of two gems (Ruby and Sapphire) that fell so deeply in love that they decided to fuse together indefinitely, which quite frankly sounds like the purest expression of marital bliss ever.

Clearly, LGBTQ themes are so core to the underpinnings of the show’s characters that to try and remove even the slightest hint of them – as Cartoon Network did – has a detrimental effect on the nature of the show. This threat was not lost on any of its fans either, as a petition to air the uncensored version of the episode in the UK and Europe has so far picked up over 6,000 signatures.

It seems to me that what Cartoon Network means by “celebrating” diversity actually translates through its actions as ‘tolerating’ diversity. Gay characters can exist as sanitised background noise or pithy punch-lines to straight character’s jokes, but as soon as they become living, breathing protagonists with feelings that children might start to identify with, the executives get squeamish. Sure, they want to pander to the demands of liberal, politically correct parents, but they also have to be mindful of being accused of pushing that ‘gay agenda’ by the more puritanical or conservative parents.

Where is the consistency in living in a country that legalises same-sex marriage but simaltaneously continues to strip same-sex relationships from children’s media as if it is something perverse that they should be protected from?

Why – in the same episode – is this sexual behaviour acceptable:

Rose Quartz and Greg Universe (Steven's parents) embrace lovingly in the episode 'What Can I Do For You?'

Rose Quartz and Greg Universe (Steven’s parents) embrace lovingly in the episode ‘We Need To Talk’. This scene aired uncensored.

But this isn’t?

Pearl and Rose Quartz share an intimate dance

Pearl and Rose Quartz share an intimate moment in the same episode. This scene was censored in the UK.

Studies show that the later children identify as being gay, the more frequently they are bullied by their peers. And with 1 in 2 young people in the UK identifying themselves as being “not 100% heterosexual“, it seems that the more examples of positive examples of healthy, loving, and normalised same-sex relationships they have access to at an early age, the better off their mental health and well-being will be later in life.

Please send a message to Cartoon Network UK that same-sex relationships shouldn’t be censored from children’s cartoons. Sign the petition here.


 

IMAGE CREDITS:
  1. Screenshot of Helen Lovejoy from ‘Much Apu About Nothing’, The Simpsons, 1990.
  2. Cover of Frederick Wrexham M.D’s book ‘Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth‘, 1954.
  3. Steven Universe‘ banner, Cartoon Network, 2013.
  4. Screenshot from ‘We Need To Talk’, Steven Universe, 2014-15.
  5. YouTube clip comparing Cartoon Network US and UK airings of a scene from ‘What Can I Do For You’, Steven Universe, 2015-16.
  6. Screenshot of Oaken waving to his family from Frozen, Disney, 2014.
  7. YouTube clip from ‘The Answer’, Steven Universe, 2016.
  8. Screenshot of Rose Quartz and Greg embracing from ‘We Need To Talk’, Steven Universe, 2015.
  9. Screenshot of Rose Quartz and Pearl dancing from ‘We Need To Talk,’ Steven Universe, 2015.
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Wonder Woman
Comics, Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Superheroes, Visual Cultural Theory

A Female Character’s Waistline Should be as Realistic as Her Job Description

Originally published on the Fanny Pack Blog.


There’s no denying that body image is a prickly issue within Feminism and our cultural landscape in general. As women, we live in a confusing world in which certain cosmetic companies *cough Dove cough* tell us to love our imperfections whilst simultaneously selling us products to fix imperfections we never realised we had (dry underarms, anybody?); in which we are apparently dicing with death when we order diet pills from the Internet; and in which our most shamed body parts one month could become our most fantasised about the next, depending on which female celebrity ranks highest on Google.

Dove Advert

Dove ‘Beautiful Underarms’ Campaign

It is no surprise then that our precious imaginary worlds, both on page and on screen also suffer from the same real-world problems. A recent trend happening online that has caught my attention has been identifying and even ‘fixing’ the unrealistic proportions of our favourite super heroines and Disney princesses. From hair, to historical accuracy, to waistlines – if there’s something to be changed, there’s someone with a Photoshop brush poised to change it.

Disney princesses with realistic waistlines

Disney Princesses with ‘Realistic’ Waistlines

The reason is certainly well-intentioned. These fictional characters – however much we kid ourselves – are intended for the consumption of younger audiences, and as such, impractical standards of beauty can have a negative impact on their perception of it and their sensitive self-confidence. But, does that mean that every ridiculously proportioned female character rendered in ink or animation is a problem waiting to be fixed? I would argue no, or at least, not in certain circumstances.

This thought struck me after I came across this particular image of Wonder Woman from Bulimia.com, whose creative team came up with the idea of giving superheroes ‘realistic waistlines’ after seeing people do the same for Disney princesses.

Wonder Woman Parody Bulimia

Wonder Woman Parody from Bulimia.com

The incentive was completely worthy: highlighting to young people that these fictional characters sport similarly fictional body shapes. Whilst it’s pleasing to see that adding a few extra pounds has certainly not lessened these super heroines’ appeal in the slightest, I did take issue with this treatment being performed on Wonder Woman specifically, and let me explain why.

I grew up in the late 90s/early 00s glued to the exploits of small-screen action heroines like Buffy and Xena as they high-kicked and shrieked their way through their improbable lives. They may have worn short skirts and metallic bras, but they were, and still are, hugely empowering to me, and their athletic physiques were a big part of that.

Xena Warrior Princess

“‘Sup, Bro?”

As the grand matriarch of all our pop cultural warrior women like Buffy and Xena, Wonder Woman still looms large today as the physical embodiment of female strength; the kind of strength that enables her to go toe-to-toe fearlessly with her muscular male equivalents. She is a warrior, a Goddess, and a champion of women’s rights. She’s the comic book answer to Rosie the Riveter.

The crux of what I’m saying is thisA female character’s waistline has to be as realistic as her job description.

If she was raised on an all-female island of warrior women, then she should have a warrior’s body. However, if she was raised in a fairy tale castle where her only physical activity was to sweep the floor and cook dinner for an ungrateful and demanding surrogate family then there is no logical necessity for her to sport a 24” waist and tiny slipper-sized feet. The same goes for nearly every princess in the Disney school of character design, in which being impossibly slim is as requisite as singing to birds and having at least one dead parent.

Not only can excessively small waistlines be a problem, but excessively sexualised ones too. And whilst exaggerated idealisation can be acceptable for certain characters as I’ve discussed, exaggerated sexualisation is often totally unnecessary and voyeuristic. This usually comes through not in the way that certain female characters are built, but how they are clothed and posed, and one that has attracted a lot of scrutiny recently is Starfire from DC’s Teen Titans.

Starfire Bikini

Starfire, from Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, 2011

Like Wonder Woman, Starfire is a warrior princess from a faraway fantastical place and as such she is pretty darn ripped. Her idealised toned body poses no problem to me, and her hyper-positive personality makes Starfire one of my favourite members of the Titans. However, her wrestling-inspired barely-there costume and the leering angles artists often choose to draw her at distract from her ungendered qualities as a powerful crime-fighter to make you constantly aware that she is a woman with very womanly parts.

There is of course nothing wrong with female characters utilising their feminine wiles. Poison Ivy and Catwoman, for example, use the femme fatale shtick as part of their villainous arsenal, and Starfire is in fact a very playful and flirtatious character – she even worked as a model at one point in the 80s. But I refuse to believe that even such a body-confident beauty like Starfire would decide that an outfit that risked her boobs popping out every time she threw a punch.

The Bulimia.com parody artwork was of course not intended to criticise comic book art as a whole, but it did unintentionally hit upon the solution to the problem of unrealistic proportions in fictional characters: Diversity. As I said earlier, if we want our heroines to look more positively ‘realistic’ then the parameters of their realism need to be defined by their individual lifestyles just as we real women are defined by ours. If a female character is a brawler that spends every night kickboxing street thugs, give her a six-pack and killer thighs. But if she’s just rocked up as a new student at the Xavier institute with the power of telekinesis then she could be either over, under, or of an average body weight and it wouldn’t make any difference to her abilities or our ability to connect with her as a character.

Thankfully this positive change towards body diversity is already alive and well in pop culture as exemplified by excellent comics such as Rat Queens and excellent cartoons such as Steven Universe, which both feature refreshingly female-orientated super-powered teams of diversely powered and sized heroines to love and relate to.

Rat Queen

Rat Queens

Steven Universe

Steven Universe

In terms of costume, it’s also pleasing to see the small but significant changes made to powerhouse heroines recently like Wonder Woman, Ms. Marvel, and (yay!) Starfire, whose idealised but practical bodies are finally matched by practical clothing.

Wonder Woman, Starfire, and Ms Marvel Costume Re Design

(From left to right, clockwise) Wonder Woman (2015), Starfire (2015), and Kamala Khan, aka the new Ms. Marvel (2014)

We still need our Goddesses, warriors, and sirens, but there’s more than enough room for our chunky, scrawny, or just plain averagely shaped heroines to inspire us as well.

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