Without a doubt, we are in a new golden age of Children´s Animation Shows. Series like “Gravity Falls” portray mystery and family dynamics. Shows like “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” details the values of team work, tolerance and a diversity of different kinds of femininity. Even shows that I don´t necessarily like, for example “Adventure Time”, are an admirably and innovative experimental venture in storytelling and narrative structure. And of course, we have shows like “Steven Universe”, an animated family science fiction show which deal with homesickness, queerness, and the questions of a Post-war environment. Despite these downbeat themes, the universe of Steven and his family and friends is a funny and upbeat show, with a constant of heartwarming moments and admonishments to tolerance and compassion. Mixed with a slew of sly insights in a surreal environment bouncing off of a bounty of really, really cool concepts “Steven Universe” is a gem in the harvest of the new children’s programming.
“Steven Universe” centers on a young, 13-year old Steven who lives with his deceased mother´s former friends, the crystal gems. The crystal gems consist of Pearl, Garnet and Amethyst who, in quasi-human form incarnations, are aliens protecting the earth from the authoritarian and destructive species of their own kind, as well as mysterious creatures focused on vicious intent towards our planet. These Crystal Gems have the individual power to summon a personal weapon, per their own unique personality, and are almost indestructible. Steven is the child of the now deceased Rose Quartz, the former leader of the crystal gems, and a human father, Greg and the first season finds Steven´s struggling to discover how to control his powers bequeathed to him through being his mothers progeny, and how to summon his own variant of the crystal weapon. The second season depicts him as having discovered his weapon, and follows him as he learns to summon it at will and wield it in communal protection of the earth with the Other Crystal Gems. The show, now in its second season, is a narrative of wondrous world building, bubbling tolerance, and open optimism in a world prone to the dark twist.
“Steven Universe” is one of the few shows where every character, main and secondary, are individually detailed and given specific and elaborated characteristics making each presentation of personage in the animation memorable, noteworthy and precise. As the major protagonists of the show, the triad of the crystal gems have contrasting, fun personas; Steven is adorable, good-natured and charitable, as well as a great role model for young boys. His father Greg is amusing, open-minded, struggling, and lovable, and the various regulars of which the town is composed of have a surprisingly diverse and detailed cast. Steven´s best friend and possible love interest Connie is Indian-American, an African-American family runs the town’s single pizzeria and we find a roster of the shows characters being ambiguous regarding the question of ethnicity (as seen notably in the city mayor´s son, who appears sturdily biracial, though with a obviously stereotypically white Politian father. The ethnicity of the character goes without mention in the show, nor sight of a possible black mother, leaving this a normal condition to the shows population. This is note worthy story telling since the actuality of inter-ethnicity is becoming more and more of the majority of the population of the earth as time goes on).
Pearl, one of the Gems that Steven lives with, is one of the shows most complex characters. Through her character, and her biographical history, the show has explored subject matters as prejudice, consequences and normalcy of bad decisions (and how to transcend them through the everyday actions of living and the acceptance of a broadminded community of peers), and homesickness. The subject that this post will focus on is Pearl´s homesickness in all its bittersweet depiction.
The beauty of many fantastical works is that through the use of fantasy, surrealism or science fiction is that, when done cleverly, the imaginary world can explore and develop subject matters that are universal, deeply philosophical or describe sociological subjects in a clear language. “Steven Universe” as a show was created by Rebecca Sugar to explore gender and sexuality. In “Steven Universe’s” first season it is revealed that the gems are aliens, and are in fact somewhat stuck on Earth. Due to complications from their decision to protect the earth, they both physically and politically cannot leave the planet. While Garnet and Amethyst are fairly ok with this, Pearl has a lingering longing for space, and the questionable companionship of her, sadly, authoritarian species.
Right to left: Garnet, Amethyst, Steven and Pearl
In the episode “Space Race” Pearl starts to tell Steven about how she and his mother used to travel the galaxy together. This was a big deal to Pearl; in fact the show has implied that those years were some of Pearls most happy years. She tells Steven that she wishes she could show him how amazing the vast diversity of space and its travel is. This prompts Steven to suggest they build a space ship together, which Pearl enthusiastically accepts. Steven and Pearl work idealistically on this project, with a the shanghaied Greg contributing to the dubious enterprise. Upon finding that Greg doesn’t take the project seriously, Pearl rejects his further contributions and determines to build the space ship herself. She does in fact build one, and while Greg is asleep Pearl tries to sneak herself and Steven on a test drive of the newly created ship.
Unfortunately the space ship starts to fall apart while leaving earth, with Pearl having to confront her illusion of leaving the confines of the planet, Steven desperately laments: “I know you worked hard, and I know you miss space, but sometimes you got to know when to bail”. Pearl in reluctance ejects herself and Steven from the failing apparatus of the ship.
While confronting the dilemmas and depressions of homesickness and alienation, this episode has amazing pacing and truly fantastic dialogue. When Pearl says somewhat bitterly that she used to travel the galaxy but that she´s know “on earth, forever”, it perfectly captures the frustration of feeling trapped, lost, and the other to yourself. Pearl doesn´t quite understand Earth; she puts on a brave face for Steven but the life on Earth is in fact alien to her. She goes into denial after Steven´s innocence has awoken hope in her, and it is just heartbreaking to watch Pearl accept that she can´t leave earth despite hard work and the resolve to capture a life abandoned to all of her correct and noble decisions. To feel nostalgia for another world and to even, to some extent, idealize it is a common trait of homesickness in people who have immigrated or otherwise feel at odds of where they are located. To feel resentful to where the homesick person lives is all too real, which Pearl´s dialogue hints at. The show doesn´t hit you over the head with its directness but with sincere story telling of the dilemma of loneliness and alienation instead; Pearl´s actions and words are subtle and gently animated getting to the core of a feeling not resolvable.
The most powerful part of this episode however is when Pearl cradles Steven as they parachute back to Earth. Steven comforts Pearl by saying that while she waits for a new chance to get to space she can stay on earth with him. Pearl can find a home with a new community of acceptance, while not denying her aches of otherness in her new address.
This episode explores how Homesickness is not always and necessarily about wanting to go Back home. It is more about wanting to feel like you belong, experiencing things that are familiar, not wanting to be the odd one out. Pearl is shown to be in deep mourning for both her lost sense of belonging to a place and the added loss when Steven´s mother died, becoming mirrored reason for her longing for space. Pearls feelings comes from a myriad of conflicting and confusing directions – her difference from humans, her loss of autonomy in the lack of travel, and the loss of friendship in the empty unfillable space left by Steven’s mother. Recognition by the community around Pearl, especially by Steven, of the many causes of loneliness and longing becomes acceptance, sadness and comfort for the possibility of a new home.
In these times with immigration being a norm for almost all countries, and many people perhaps feeling like they were born in the wrong place, Pearl´s story most certainly can resonate with many people.
Pearl´s decision and conclusions to the irresolvable question of homesickness (and the feeling of otherness) also mirrors many of the decisions regarding immigration and resettling seen in our contemporary moment. Resettling individuals and general immigration, is founded on a myriad of diverse reasons, most directly related to the case exemplified in Pearl is the person who finds love or have children in the new land. Additionally Pearl finds, as many a political/cultural immigrant, she is forced to resettle to earth because going back might be dangerous. Pearl, also has the added moral and communal incentive of having to be the new family for Steven after the demise of his mother (and naturally to protect the Earth from monsters which would threaten Steven and his species). Her new responsibilities and identity make her stay on earth more prominent, but also easier as her ethical imperative is to be a family for Steven. (We can find a like, and real world example, of this ethical imperative to family in the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim who stated, at the Stockholm Literature conference of 2015, that one of the overriding reasons that he hasn’t moved from Finland is because of his son who was born in Finland, and because of the Finnish mother of this son).
While Pearl complains, and has deeply sad feelings about being confined and alienated upon Earth we simultaneously see a Pearl as determined and devoted, even creating herself as immigrant and other, to protect and give Steven stability, love, caring and a family. Given the real activities and world of immigrants, this following by Pearl of the moral imperative of family, community, and obligation to comforting the young, is one hundred percent believable. Pearl´s struggles and realization is a true and determined call to action for a world facing the questions of nationality, community and immigration, despite being fantasy.
Steven: “You can stay here with me” Pearl: “Yes, with you”
In “Space Race” this show tells the struggles of many, many people worldwide, and is able to show that despite not always getting to go back home, one can always make the best of what one has and in doing so make the world a better place.