There’s nothing new about male superheroes being the pinnacle of masculinity. Superman, with his idealized wholesome masculine power with danger lurking just beneath the surface of his calm exterior and Batman, with his fearlessness and gritty strength as the revered “lone wolf,” are both iconic images of this trope. However, studies have shown that these muscled, thick-veined, often-snarling masculine icons are just that—male power fantasies. Thus suggesting that masculinity is still a socially constructed performance, like any other gender role, even if it is always at the peek of power.
Performative masculinity has a tension to it that performative femininity does not, in that the performance itself is seen as unmasculine. In other words, you cannot learn to be a “real man” — you either are or you are not. And that is the story that both popular media, from movies to first-person shooter games, and heteronormative societal structures pushes on its young male audience. More and more today, we see dangerous displays of this toxic sort of masculinity go unchecked.
I think masculinity can, and should, manifest in different, healthier ways: emotional strength, bravery, and above all, love.
With a lineup of Lego-brand shows filtering into people’s homes about male physical prowess, Steven Universe is another popular TV series that is a breath of fresh air. Protected by three, ageless, female-presenting alien warriors called the Crystal Gems (by the names of Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl), Steven is a half-human, half-gem boy who inherited his gemstone from his late mother, and the Gems’ former leader, Rose Quartz. And what do the four (Steven included) Crystal Gems do? They protect the world from evil, of course.
Steven’s weapon is a shield — a bright pink, impenetrable shield with a rose emblem in the middle of it. Steven does not attack; he defends. Unlike other characters in movies, Steven does not thrust forward in battle with a phallic weapon. He inherited his powers to shield and ability to heal from his mother, but Rose also left him her sword, which he does not wield at all. Steven is adventurous and confident, which is typical of boy leads in shows, but he is also affectionate, selfless, very prone to crying, and just plain adorable on all counts. These characteristics and abilities are often distinctly feminine-coded as far as popular media tropes are concerned and therefore unfit for growing boys; they are seen as less powerful traits than traditional masculine ones like ambition. And what makes Steven Universe such a transgressive show is that not only are Steven’s traits not treated as weaknesses, they are also frequently the source of his greatest powers.
When asked about her decision to play with the dynamics of gendered television, the show’s creator Rebecca Sugar said it was an intentional one: “My goal with the show was to really tear down and play with the semiotics of gender in cartoons for children because I think that’s a really absurd idea that there would be something radically different about a show for little girls versus a show for little boys.”
Aside from the other Crystal Gems raising him, he also has a great father, Greg Universe, who is arguably just as responsible for Steven’s strength as his three “mothers” are. At first glance, the audience would assume Greg is one of those “bad-father” types. He doesn’t live with Steven as the primary caregiver (he lives in a van, i.e. he is homeless); he is unambitious; he is an ex-musician with a hoarding problem. Despite all of this, Greg is a large presence in Steven’s life, offering unconditional love and support for him even when Greg doesn’t understand and/or fears the situations. In one instance, he helps Steven gain control of his powers, and in another, he gives Steven the space to participate in missions and battles, but also remains close by in case his son needs the extra support.
Greg Universe is definitely not perfect, but what makes him as “trope breaking” as Steven himself is that he doesn’t try to change any of the abilities or personality traits that make Steven so uniquely him. He is a gentle, nurturing father in a sea of emotionally unavailable — or just plain absent — father figures, another popular media trope. He does his best besides the crappy circumstances he finds himself in and becomes an excellent role model for his son — and furthermore, for the young boys that are watching the show.
Steven Universe is undoubtedly a show dedicated to showing that our lives do not have to be ruled by rigid, heteronormative gender roles. Steven Universe is a reminder that boys and men can be good and kind and powerfully loving, instead of just plain powerful. He is a boy who embodies the possibility of turning away from simulated and toxic masculinities to a movement toward one that is deeply rooted in love and compassion rather than domination. And most importantly, that it’s okay and wonderful and necessary that young boys be allowed to cry and be excited and gentle.
- Lachenal, Jessica. "Rebecca Sugar on Gender, Steven Universe, and the Show's Inspiration." The Mary Sue. n.p. 15 June 2015. Web. 15 October 2015.