Emotional Expression on Steven Universe

This is the first in a series of videos exploring what Steven Universe has to say about men, boys and masculinity. This episode covers representations of emotional expression, and highlights the ways in which crying, affection and fear are framed on the show.

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Below is a full transcript of the embedded video.


[Clip of Steven Universe]

Amethyst: That show’s really weird. Who wants to watch a cartoon about people crying?
Steven: I do.

This is the first in a series of videos that will be exploring what Steven Universe has to say about men, boys, and masculinity.

Steven Universe is an animated show on Cartoon Network created by Rebecca Sugar. It focuses on the adventures of the Crystal Gems: Garnet, Pearl, Amethyst, and, of course, Steven.

The series is exceptional for a whole bunch of reasons, not least of which is because it’s filled with powerful, confident women who are central to the show and its plot.

Now if you haven’t seen the show yet, just pause this video right here and go and do that, because it is good. I mean really seriously good. Currently, there are something like 85 episodes and they’re about 10 minutes long each, which means that if you start right now, you could watch them all in like 15 hours. So once you’ve gone and done that, just come back, unpause the video and keep watching. Alright? Alright.

[Clip of Steven Universe]

Connie: Ahhhh this show is so good!

Those of you who do follow the series probably already know that Steven Universe has received a huge amount of praise for its diversity, for its feminist themes and for its positive depictions of queer relationships.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Garnet: Hahaha. Steven, thank you!

It really is remarkable for an adventure show to do any of this, let alone one that’s made for a younger audience. But today I want to talk about something else that makes the show really extraordinary, something that gets maybe a little less attention and that is the way that it represents masculinity.

Now it may not seem like it at first glance but there is a ton of depth to this show, so I want to break break this discussion into a few different parts. But I want to start off by talking about emotional expression, and highlight the ways in which crying, affection, and fear are framed on the series.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Steven: I guess I’m just too tough to cry.
Pearl: Just today you were crying about snakes.
Steven: They don’t have any arms!

You’ve probably heard the old adage, “boys don’t cry,” but on Steven Universe everyone cries. Men and boys absolutely cry and their tears are not portrayed as a sign of weakness.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Steven: You saved me.

Instead crying is depicted as a perfectly normal and healthy thing for everyone to do.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Steven: That’s unusual!

It certainly is Steven.

Incidentally, when I say that crying is healthy, I mean that quite literally, in both the physiological and psychological sense because tears are one of the best ways to relieve stress.

I should also mention that on Steven Universe tears are not limited to expressions of sadness. Instead crying is used to express all kinds of different emotions.

There are tears of pride. Tears of loss. Tears of self-pity. Tears of anger. Tears of joy. Tears of suffering. Tears of fear. Tears of love. Tears of concern. Tears of bravery. Tears of admiration. Tears of embarrassment. Tears of desperation. Tears of mourning. Tears of betrayal. Tears of relief. Tears of confusion. Tears of regret. Tears of determination. And many, many more.

Because tears are so common and so varied, crying is just accepted as a normal response to all kinds of situations. And that normalization then opens up space on the show for it to occasionally poke fun at a character for behaving in a foolish or melodramatic way without poking fun at the act of crying itself.

The series also has a fantastic sense of humor about all this crying, as evidenced by Steven’s favorite cartoon show…

[Clip of Steven Universe]
TV: Stay tuned from another episode of Crying Breakfast Friends.
Greg: Sheesh I must be getting old. I used to like cartoons.

The open expression of vulnerability is extremely gendered in Western media culture. Being emotional, especially crying, is seen as stereotypically feminine, as “girl stuff.” We’re all familiar with the stereotype that women are “over-emotional” or “irrational” or “too sensitive.” Now of course, that stereotype is complete nonsense. Everyone has these emotions and everyone has these feelings.

In fact research has shown that male infants actually display more emotional expression than female infants do. But our society teaches boys at a very early age that it is not okay for them to display their vulnerable sides.

We’re taught that young men should bottle up most of their feelings. That anger or aggression may sometimes be permissible for some men in certain situations, but that vulnerability is strictly off limits because it’s been culturally associated with weakness. But on Steven Universe vulnerability is not equated with weakness, instead it’s simply equated with being a human being.

[Clip of Steven Universe]

Steven: Dad please, I have to go back. I have to. They don’t have my shield. Do you understand?
Greg: Yeah, okay. Just be careful or I’m going to run fresh out of family.
Steven: Stay with everyone and keep them safe.

We see men and boys openly sharing their emotions and talking about their feelings with their friends and their family. No one is told to “toughen up” and no one is made to feel that expressing their feelings is something to be ashamed of.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Greg: What are you smiling about?
Steven: You loved her!
Greg: Come here you!

Both physical and verbal expressions of affection, of love and of support are freely given in Steven’s world. On Steven Universe there are lots and lots of hugs. So so so very many hugs.

[Clips of Steven Universe]
Steven: Welcome back
Pearl: Well done Amethyst
Amethyst: Knock it off. We gotta go find The Slinker!
Steven: No, it’s hug time!

And just like crying, physical signs of affection hold a vast array of different emotional meanings. There are hugs of consolation. Hugs of protection. Hugs of joy. Hugs of forgiveness. Hugs of support. And so many more.

It’s also common for characters to express their love and their support for each other very directly by simply telling them that that’s how they feel.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Garnet: Oh Steven, there’s one more thing I have to mention.
Steven: What is it?
Garnet: I love you, bye.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Peridot: Do you have any last words?
Steven: I love you, Peridot.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Amethyst: Why are you getting so worked up? What? Do you care about me or something?
Steven: Yes.

This emotional expression is all out there in the open, so we, as the audience, don’t need to read between the lines. On Steven Universe, characters don’t need to mask their affection for each other behind cynicism or teasing or self-deprecating humor, as tends to happen on some other animated shows.

It’s a very brave thing to show love and affection for others, and to do it wholeheartedly like Steven does. Tender and loving behavior is never framed as embarrassing or unmanly in his world. And it’s not reserved only for romance either.

This is especially remarkable when it comes to depictions of men’s relationships with each other. We see affection being actively encouraged, even between straight men. Particularly between Steven and his father, but also between Steven and his friends, including wannabe cool kid Lars.

Now a quick note here: emotional expression is not the same thing as just having feelings. Men, even fictional men are not robots. Well, I mean they’re mostly not robots. Almost all male characters in media are meant to have feelings, at least at some point. These feelings are communicated to the audience through a variety of filmmaking techniques, but most of the time men don’t openly share those feelings, instead the male characters choose to keep it to themselves, except under a very narrow set of traumatic circumstances where showing feelings is momentarily acceptable, like when a loved one dies for example.

So when we’re talking about emotional expression, we’re not just talking about men having feelings, we’re talking about male characters that openly share and communicate those feelings to others on screen.

Ok, so we’ve seen how crying and affection are not framed as weak or shameful. But what about fear? How is being afraid portrayed on the show?

The first thing to note is that on Steven Universe being scared is not framed as something negative. Being afraid is instead portrayed as normal and as healthy.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Greg: Now remember Steven, if you run into any trouble out there, you can always bail. There’s never any shame in bailing.
Steven: Fatherly advice understood. Thank you, Dad.

This approach differs from many other coming of age stories in which courage is often conflated with fearlessness. In those narratives young men must learn to bury their fear deep down because showing that you’re afraid is widely seen as an act of cowardice.

This media message that fear is somehow shameful or unmanly then encourages young men to go out and take dangerous unnecessary risks in a misguided quest to look like “tough guys” who have no fear.

It’s true that unchecked fear can turn into paranoia and then drive people to lash out and harm others. And that’s obviously not good. But here’s the thing about fear: fear is a natural human emotion. It’s a natural reaction to danger. It’s a biological response with a purpose. And its purpose is to keep us safe and healthy. That’s fear’s job.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Steven: Next stop, outer space!
Greg: Blast off!

And as such it’s an important emotional part of life. Fear can help us assess when a situation may be too risky or too dangerous. It’s fear that tells us: Hey, maybe it’s not a good idea to go run around with scissors or play football in traffic on the highway. So, only when Steven lets his fear control and consume him does it become a problem.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Steven: Hold on. Don’t leave me. At least tell me what’s gonna happen with my lunch. Do I choke on a pickle?
Garnet: Um, you don’t choke on a pickle.
Steven: That means something else happens with the pickle!

But as long as fear is not consistent or completely debilitating, it can be a very healthy thing.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Steven: Pearl?
Pearl: We can make it. We’re almost there!

Time and again the show communicates that listening to your fears is an important step in building a good plan of action moving forward.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Pearl: Steven, what are you doing?
Steven: We need to go Pearl, we’re not gonna make it.

In Steven’s world, acknowledging and being sensitive to your own fears is a true demonstration of bravery.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Garnet: Steven, the truth is we’re scared.
Steven: We’ve been scared before, right? None of us know what’s going to happen, but that’s ok. We can figure things out. Together.

As I mentioned earlier, men and boys in our culture are expected to learn to bottle up their emotions. Men may be allowed to have feelings but ultimately they are encouraged to keep those feelings buried deep inside most of the time. This series addresses this gendered convention directly in the episode “Full Disclosure.” Steven is feeling overwhelmed and scared for the safety of his loved ones. And seeing this, his friend Ronaldo gives him some terrible, terrible advice.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Ronaldo: Yes Steven, that’s just what people like us do: suffer quietly, shouldering the knowledge no one else can bare. This is no easy path we’ve chosen here. There are sacrifices. Look at them all down there, Steven. It’s our duty to let those simple people live out their simple lives, without ever knowing the burden of being friends with us.

That idea that men should shoulder difficult burdens all by themselves to protect those who are close to them is something deeply ingrained in our culture. And it’s evidence of a very unhealthy form of masculinity. And one that makes interpersonal connections with others really difficult.

When men feel they must go it alone emotionally, it forces them to deceive their loved ones and try to face all of life’s challenges without any support. But Steven Universe is not a show about going it alone. In fact this is a show about the opposite.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Steven: It’s time I got serious.
(Phone rings.)
Pearl: Steven, why is your communication device playing that song?
Steven: It’s Connie trying to call me, but I can’t face her anymore.
Pearl: So, you’re just going to ignore her? Forever?
Steven: It’s the responsible thing to do.
Amethyst: That’s gonna be hard ‘cause she’s coming up the steps right now.

Although Steven initially believes he must isolate himself to protect those around him, the show has a very different lesson in store. In classic wannabe tough guy fashion, Steven tells his friend Connie to leave him alone to his heavy burden.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Connie: Steven?
Steven: I can’t be with you anymore. I have a destiny.
Connie: Say it to my face.

But she refuses to leave him alone. She is persistent, and Steven ultimately decides to open up to her.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Steven: I still want to be friends.
Connie: Steven, your eye? What happened to you?
Steven: I didn’t want you to worry about it.
Connie: I’ve been worried sick all day. What do you think I’m doing here?
Steven: I just wanted to protect you–
Connie: –Stop. Just tell me everything.

He cries, and he tells her the truth about his feelings, demonstrating that he has the courage to be openly vulnerable in front of her. I can’t stress how unusual this is for any piece of media. This series is not content to simply hint at what the protagonist may be feeling deep down inside like so many other superhero stories (cough) Batman (cough). On Steven Universe male heroes don’t brood or stew with unspoken emotions. They dare to share their feelings openly with others.

In the end, Steven’s emotional honesty is rewarded. Connie is supportive of his feelings and affectionately reaffirms that she is there for him no matter what.

[Clip of Steven Universe]
Connie: The least I could do is just listen.
Steven: I can’t ask you to do that.
Connie: I want to Steven. I want to be a part of your universe.

The lesson here is that men and boys don’t need to protect their loved ones from things that might scare them. Men don’t have to weather the storm alone. Instead we can work through life’s struggles together with our friends, our lovers, and our families.

It’s going to take a long time for us to collectively unlearn these harmful notions about detached manhood. But Steven’s open and emotionally expressive version of masculinity, that’s an inspirational example for us all.

Next time we’ll talk about Steven’s powers and how those powers are connected to empathy.

I hope this video made you even more excited about Steven Universe. If you’d like to see more videos related to media and manhood, hop on over to my Patreon page and help fund the Pop Culture Detective Agency.

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