When Steven Universe began production, I was hopeful, but skeptical. Not just because of my history of disappointment with stories that weren’t as progressive as I’d wanted, but because despite what appeared to be “strong female characters,” the main character - Steven Universe himself - was still going to be male. I’ve seen others express similar concerns. However, now that the first season has ended, it seems to me that not only has this show lived up to almost every hope I’d had for it, but that Steven, the title character, has to be male to accomplish many of those successes.
While I still believe there are not enough good lead female protagonists in action/adventure roles (many examples I still find problematic), Steven Universe is significant because it goes beyond simply having positive portrayals of women and female-identified characters and instead aims bigger, building a larger feminist-influenced society for these characters to exist in. This world is not perfect and similar to our own in many ways - racially diverse, relationships both healthy and toxic, individuals experiencing love, friendship, insecurity, and loss - but unlike our world, noticeably absent are even the remotest suggestions of strangeness about a boy who loves pink and romance, shapeshifting genderless beings choosing to look like women of color with a range of body shapes and not the “default” white male, or positive non-traditional families (one character does express fear of judgement about a “non-nuclear family,” but of course in this world, acceptance is what results).
Most significantly, while the story is, on its surface, about a boy learning to be a superhero from his superhero guardians, the show does not emphasize the traditional masculine superhero traits of power, dominance, and aggression as the goal to aspire to. Rather, strength (of character, body, and mind) comes from compassion, love, sensitivity, and kindness – traditionally feminine “strengths” that here are not portrayed as strictly “feminine.” The Crystal Gems, female “superheroes” of this world, each embody these ideals in their own way, and none moreso that Rose Quartz, Steven’s mother and the most powerful leader of the Crystal Gems, respected even by her enemies. However, an all-girl team, would potentially reinforce the stereotype that, rather than being universal, these traits are “natural” to being female; a male hero who displays these strengths is needed to show that they are indeed accessible to everyone. Steven’s father, Greg, does embody the idea of strength in love, but is a semi-homeless normal human. Because he doesn’t have any of the Gems’ great abilities, if he were the only male character expressing these traits, the story would risk implying that men who are sensitive are still “inferior,” potentially falling into tokenism and being read as either representing a patriarchal image of male weakness as “feminine” or conforming to the stereotype that feminism is “really” about female superiority. Greg, as wonderful as he is on his own, still needs a male Steven to indicate a different pattern of what it means to be a strong male character that’s separate from power and financial provider. Too much history is wrapped up in the association between “female,” “kindness,” and “weakness” for the show to have a female Steven and still clearly convey that it’s creating a world different from ours – a “what if” world where people of all genders are not restricted by gender roles (Yes, there is also one non-binary character who exists, loved and unquestioned, for the one episode they appear in).
In adventure-based fiction, we often challenge that association by focusing on female characters aspiring to “masculine” traits in order to show women as equals to men. However, by primarily utilizing this perspective, we risk implying that we still place a higher value on “masculine” ideals, unintentionally diminishing traditionally “feminine” traits. By extension, we can end up not actually challenging the association of these traits with femininity at all, thus unintentionally upholding the patriarchal concept of the feminine as lesser or weaker. And so we need to also show traditionally feminine ideals embraced by “strong” male characters in order to more fully break the gendered association.
Having a boy as the main character accomplishes this because the main character is the viewer’s access to the world and the lens for how we are intended to see and interpret things in that world. A heroic main character’s values can normalize those values as something we, the viewers, will implicitly accept, and we need stories that normalize not just powerful women, but men and boys who respect women in a way that’s empowering for everyone. Normalizing a boy like Steven tells boys that yes, looking up to women and not conforming to gender stereotypes is positive and acceptable, and tells girls that yes, even “important” boys (as implied by being the protagonist) can indeed learn from and respect them, and yes, they can expect boys to be able to relate to them.
And so, along with the expected female characters who counter stereotypes and patriarchal ideas about what it means to be female or feminine, we see in Steven Universe a boy who admires, is inspired by, and wants to be like the women in his life. More than that, a male main character relating to women emphasizes the full extent of this creation’s vision for the world – a complete, rounded world showing what feminist goals can mean for all genders, including a different, positive way of being a boy that challenges gender stereotypes for men, and a society that doesn’t judge them for it.
Males and masculinity may get the most positive attention in patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need any attention from feminism. Feminism affects everyone – it has to, if our goal is to make real societal change – and so it can’t succeed if we ignore the male half of the population’s role in and impact by feminist ideals. If feminism wants to change the world, it has to show from all angles what that world might look like. A girl learning from other women is important, but only shows half the story if that’s all we focus on. A boy living and growing happily in a feminist world is revolutionary.
Steven has to be a boy and has to be the main character because Steven is the child, new to this world, and experiencing everything for the first time, learning how to live in his society. And so are we, the viewer, learning what could be, what kind of potential world we could have, seeing and experiencing this hopeful, positive vision for the first time along with him.
(Cross posted on my blog: elisto.blogspot.com/2015/05/wh… )