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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Steven Universe and the Importance of Empathy

One of the most important things, and hardest things, to do when we write and create is to be empathetic to others. It is hard to step outside of ourselves, to look at life from another perspective and through the eyes of someone else. In truth it is impossible. We can only know ourselves and never truly know another, never know how the feel or what they think, how a certain action or saying truly affects another. But we can try.

Perhaps that's what makes Steven Universe so impressive. It is a show of incredible heart, depth, humanity, and empathy. It seems strange to give such high praise to an eleven minute show on cartoon network, especially one that starts off so silly as Steven Universe does. However, despite those beginnings, creator Rebecca Sugar really knew what she wanted to create and did so with such beauty and precision that I'm jealous.

When we talk about this show we are talking about a show that shows the virtues of femininity, that shows that boys can be matronly and girls can be soldiers of great strength and skill. We are talking about a show in which relationships, straight and otherwise, are explored with fairness and depth. We need only look at Garnet or Steven and Connie to see the beauty of a healthy and happy relationship. We are talking about a show that shows to virtues of family, that shows that love comes in all shapes, and that strength comes from what is around us.

We are also talking about a show that deals with insecurities and fears. With loss and love and mistakes. We are talking about a show that knows grief as intimately as it knows love, that knows success as well as failure. It knows these things like old lovers and it holds them dear, looking at them starry eyed.

One need only look at that picture of titular character Steven and one of his guardians, Pearl, to see the heart and heartbreak contained in this show.

It feels like I am late to the party to be writing about this now, four seasons in. But what strikes me the most is that this show so understands the human condition. That it understands just how mean and foolish, how prideful we can be. How we can be driven by rage and regret and our insecurities and be so caught up in the past that we forgot how to live now. It is a show that knows what it like to live in that abyss of grief and loss and not know how to move forward, no matter how we try, and know the difficulty of connecting to even those that share in our grief.

But it also knows how great we can be. How we can aspire to love and live a life of compassion and kindness to all things. In some ways it is like Doctor Who in that it looks to the greatest aspects of what we are and asks us to keep striving to live up to those great ideals, no matter how naive or difficult that they may be.

It is a show about a boy who cares for and tries to love everything, even the things that harm him. Not because he is perfect or a saint. Not because it is a moral trip or because it is easy. But because it is harder to listen, to accept, to understand. It is harder to give love than to hate, harder to recognize the humanity in others that it is to dehumanize them as some other thing. But Steven always tries to walk that difficult path. And maybe that message of acceptance and family, of dealing with loss and our own insecurities in a positive way, of openness, is the sort of message that is most suited for the young to absorb and perhaps even for us adults.