Sunday, June 16, 2024

Children’s shows vs. Childish shows: a case study

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Children’s media seems to be getting so much right these days, especially when it comes to “heavy issues.” We were not exactly…subtle in the shade that we threw at Game of Thrones (GoT)—the show that Emmy voters apparently consider the “best drama” on television.

I don’t meant to act as though “adult” shows can’t handle these subjects with nuance and sensitivity, of course. For every GoT or The 100, there’s a Jessica Jones or Outlander. Those shows are important examples, and save me from a sense of utter hopelessness when it comes to the entertainment industry. But children’s media is more than holding its own these days, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Yet it is. It is sneezed at. Tell an ardent GoT fan that Steven Universe, a show I once called the “smartest on television,” is a better narrative in terms of plot, consistency, characterizations, and messaging, and it will be dismissed. There’s this certain attitude that because it is “geared for children,” it’s inherently “dumbed down” to be digestible, and therefore not worthy of an adult’s time (or even worse, regressive for an adult to engage with). Which I kind of see where this argument stems from: though there are shows such as Beyblade that are purely the cynical marketing of toys meant to entertain, most children’s media does have an inherently pedagogical quality. Asking a schmadult to consume such a thing would be like asking them to fill out an 8’s multiplication table for funsies. We’re past this, right?

Well…what if I told you that Steven Universe (SU), the brainchild of Fandom Following’s favorite cinnamon roll Rebecca Sugar, handled similarly heavy subjects and themes present in GoT with not only more sensitivity, but more complexity? That it is actually a more challenging show to consume? I mean, sure, there’s no narrative sadism, so you’re not going to be able to tweet those  cerebral “they killed X? Whaaaatt?” reactions. But I promise you, in terms of purely intellectual qualities, SU outstrips GoT in every single way.

Let’s zoom in and look at just one subject, interpersonal relationships and consent, to compare how the two shows handle it, both in terms of sensitivity and providing a challenge to viewers. GoT contains many different types of relationships, yet I would argue that any exploration and their actual dynamic is surface level at best.

Take last year, Margaery and Tommen’s marriage: this is statutory rape. Two men (showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, or “D&D”) in the 21st century made the creative decision to age up the character of Tommen to 12/13ish, and have him marry a woman at least twice his age who was played by woman in her thirties. Keep your moral relativism in your pocket; it is irrelevant here.

And like, this would have been a good opportunity for the D’s to explore how inherently exploitative this marriage was, and how women are capable of abusing men because of the Westerosi’s messed up understanding of “strength” and “manliness.” But…they did no such thing. They played it off as a joke; that Tommen was just so dang lucky to be having sex with a hot, older woman, and that he considered himself “a man” as a result of his violation. 

It was never challenged, never questioned, and moving into Season 6, even the High Sparrow seemed eager to get Marg back in the sack with her abuse victim because that’s the pious path, or something.

We can make a similar point about how Hizdahr was forced into his marriage with Daenerys (he was literally pleading for his life when she told him what was happening), yet his victimization was totally ignored as well. And then he got stabbed because he just wasn’t as manly as Daario and his daggers.

In fact, Dany’s choice to wed Hizdahr was framed in a really, really, positive light, as if this was such a great and humble sacrifice on her part.

And please don’t get me started on Larry and Carol Jaime and Cersei’s relationship, because it’s quite clear D&D have no idea what they’re even doing with it from year to year. Or episode to episode. I mean, in Season 4, Jaime raped Cersei, and the showrunners didn’t even realize it. So then when Cersei doubled down in her commitment to him, it wasn’t this exploration of a “battered wife”; it was an ass-pull that ignored what had happened. Perhaps it was supposed to show us how toxic that relationship is, but as of 6×01, that message is entirely muddled, as they seem really happy with each other, really supportive, and they both have extremely sympathetic portrayals.

What’s really sick is that I can keep going: Sansa being raped by Ramsay and writer Bryan Cogman giving interviews that opened a wide, wide space for apology. Myranda being framed as Ramsay’s abuse victim without them realizing it (and let’s get Ramsay mourning that corpse this year!). Gilly being totally sassy and assertive at every turn despite her background of abuse (her book counterpart doesn’t even feel entitled to warmth because of how badly that messed her up), unless the needs of a male character require her not to be.

Pivot to SU, where we not only get a diversity of relationships portrayed, but the implications of their dynamics are fully explored. And when someone is violated or victimized on the show, Rebecca Sugar f-cking realizes it.

I’ll start with the relationship between Ruby and Sapphire, because they are oddly a better portrayal of the Sam and Gilly George R.R. Martin wrote in his books. We only recently learned their backstory, which was that sapphires are rare gems, and our Sapphire was a member of Blue Diamond’s court. She was aristocracy. Rubies, on the other hand, are apparently a dime a dozen, so our Ruby places no value on her life. In fact, when Sapphire saves her from being “broken” (which I assume means permanently) and spirits her away, Ruby protests, because she feels it’s more important for Sapphire to keep her court position than for Ruby to live.

The rest of their backstory plays out as we’re sort of walked through positive consent. It’s complicated, but the long and short is that two gems can fuse it what may or may not be an allegory for sex. It’s more like an allegory for a relationship. Ruby and Sapphire stumbled into each other and fused by accident, yet the rest of the episode takes the time to establish that it was something they both enjoyed, both took comfort in, and both wanted to try again, despite an inherent hesitancy. It was the first time fusion happened between two different types of gems (oh hey, is this show also giving us queer representation or something?), so they wanted to make sure that the other was on-board. They even sang a damn song about it.

Because Ruby and Sapphire prefer to stay fused as “Garnet,” we see very little of their interaction, and yet the few glimpses we get continue to tackle the same issues, while also playing to consistent characterizations. When they’re separated and possibly tortured, Ruby is only concerned with Sapphire’s well-being, while Sapphire makes sure to take the time for Ruby to feel valued:

When they de-fuse due to a fight with each other, we see Ruby responding quite emotionally while Sapphire sort of takes a condescending hands-off approach, only to be resolved by her realizing the hurt this was causing her girlfriend:

What’s possibly most remarkable is that every single one of these interactions fleshes out not only two characters who barely appear on our screen, but shed insight into the enigmatic Garnet, who projects all this outer strength and stoicism. We get a glimpse at what’s going on behind those glasses—what her internal struggles are—and it’s quite thought-provoking.

Contrast this to Gilly, who is demanding and sassy with Sam except when she’s not, and who forgets she has sisters except when they’re brought up to clumsily seed greyscale. Or contrast this to Cersei, who’s Jaime’s biggest fan except when she’s not, because plot reasons.

Until the very next episode, you mean.

It’s true, however, that because of the existence of Garnet, Ruby and Sapphire seem almost precluded from breaking up in the narrative. This doesn’t mean that their relationship doesn’t take work to unpack, but there is a safety there. And in some ways, “safety” is one of the biggest charges hurled against children’s media in general: that there can’t be real tension unless things can take a grim turn, or unless someone randomly caulks it. Because that’s deep and everything.

Yet when it comes to interpersonal relationships, SU never shies away from the fraught and the ugly, even if we can agree that Garnet’s the perfect relationship. Pearl is perhaps the best example, as she is given a story-line where she violates Garnet trust, and this can also be read as a physical violation. She manipulates the situation and fuses with Garnet under false pretenses. Which whether or not we chose to read this as a proxy for “rape by deception,” we see that this violated Garnet’s boundaries.

In fact, the aforementioned fight between Ruby and Sapphire was over this, and they disagreed on how to proceed with Pearl and how to respond to the abuse. The implications for Garnet’s character were the entire focal point of that episode, rather than, say, the mercurial scripting of Sansa’s personality and mode of operation following her own violation.

Yet at the same time, Pearl remains sympathetic. The narrative doesn’t let her off or anything—her actions are clearly framed in a negative light, and her desperation to be forgiven by capturing Peridot and hoping they can move on as a result rather than offering a full apology is meant to be grating. However, when she finally explains herself, we see that she was coming from a place of low self-worth, feeling too weak to be on her own and like her only chance to not be “useless” is by fusing. This actually mirrors Ruby’s self-conception, though unlike Ruby, Pearl doesn’t have a Sapphire to work through this.

To muddy the waters even further, Pearl had been not-at-all subtly in love with Rose, Steven’s mother, though as far as we know, it seemed unrequited. We learn that she valued Rose so much, and herself so little, that she would even charge into battle without any concern for her own well-being.

Garnet: Back during the war, Pearl took pride in risking her destruction for your mother. She put Rose Quartz over everything; over logic, over consequence, over her own life.

Pearl is so flawed, but in such a consistent way, that we are able to fully sympathize with her deception of Garnet, while at the same time feel betrayed. In fact, writing that out, I’m realizing that Pearl is a very…A Song of Ice and Fire-esque character. One of the major themes Martin explores (which is largely due to his choice in setting) is how the battle between good and evil takes place in the human heart. Good people do bad things in his books, and they struggle with their conceptions of identity as a result.

On GoT, most characters are written as inconsistent messes, with the exception of the characters who have been stripped of any ambiguity, such as the literal TvTropes definition of a Mary Sue in Tyrion. SU, meanwhile, is more than happy to show us Pearl’s ambiguity, while also writing her in such a way that we are meant to like her. We see her stumble, we see her get down on herself, and we even see some outright ugly behavior.

As a result, she becomes a challenge to the viewer. Do we forgive her for what she did to Garnet? Do we find her treatment of Greg acceptable? And why is it that we still like her (or even relate to her in many cases)? Then more importantly, what is Rebecca Sugar trying to say with the scripting of her character? Because this show actually has, like, themes. And struggles with identity.

I guess we can pretend there’s struggles with identity on GoT due to the fact that even brilliant method actors can’t seem to make heads or tails of the characters they are supposed to be portraying.

Even side-characters in SU are accorded moral ambiguity and a space for their relationships to grow and evolve. Lars and Sadie, two tertiary characters who probably have less combined screen time than Lion, are the perfect examples of this. We learn rather quickly that Sadie has what might be characterized as an unrequited crush on Lars, and it’s also heavily hinted at that they’ve had sex before (though for Lars there didn’t seem to be any emotional weight attached). However, during the course of an episode, the duo (and a third-wheeling Steven) get stranded on an island, where they grow closer, with Lars even kissing Sadie in a moment of vulnerability.

Small hiccup: we then learn that Sadie manipulated the situation to make it seem like they were stranded on the island, possibly  to grow closer to Lars, though she insisted it was because he needed a vacation. The two argue, and we’re left as torn as Steven as Sadie did deceive everyone, while at the same time Lars pivots to double-down on his assertions that he doesn’t care about her.

Sadie: *angrily* Aaaah! *slaps Lars* You kissed me on… *slaps Lars again* the mouth!
Lars: No, I didn’t!

The two argue and Sadie accidentally knocks him off a small ledge, but then comes to his rescue it a pretty badass way. However, when Lars awkwardly tries to tell her that it was “really great,” she tells him not to read into it.

It’s…complicated. Like, actually complicated. I’ll rewatch this episode and find myself switching from Lars and Sadie’s side. The narrative doesn’t seem to endorse or condemn either party too, so it’s not as if Rebecca Sugar is doing the work for her audience.

I think GoT tried to give two of their side-characters, Grey Worm and Missandei, a complicated relationship. Like, that one scene last year where Grey Worm said he felt ashamed because he was scared he might not have seen Missandei again, and Unsullied aren’t supposed to have feelings was actually interesting. Not morally ambiguous or fraught, but certainly something to explore. However, they’re never given that narrative space for that to happen. In fact, they’re reduced to little more than awestruck cheerleaders for both Dany and Tyrion, when neither character particularly deserves that. Not to mention, this would require an exploration of the setting, which changes as the plot demands (see also, their magically disappearing patriarchy).

And then aside from the good ship Miss Worm, I am at a total loss to think of any other example. The Waif maybe boning her teacher, because that might sort of explain her random jealousy of Arya? Maybe? Why does it feel like I’m putting more thought into this than the writers?

So when it comes to the portrayal of interpersonal relationships and the inherent handling of consent, can you explain to me what exactly about GoT is supposed to be more challenging than SU, given that the latter takes the time to present actually morally ambiguous situations (not accidental ones like “Hizdahr zo Sansa”), to accord their characters consistent flaws and motivations, and to not shy away from the implications, while also not spoon-feeding the answer of “right and wrong” to their TV-PG-approved audience, while the former has writers who don’t even realize when their own characters are raped, and who set aside characterizations on a whim in favor of plot-demands?

And this doesn’t stop with their handling of relationships. I could make a series of themes that SU handles with more nuance and complexity than GoT, and may do just that depending on how much the Season 6 narrative increases my desire to do so. Because really, the only “challenge” I see GoT offering is if viewers can manage to not injure themselves with all the mental gymnastics required for the show to make a lick of sense.

Watching Steven Universe is not regressing into a safe, simple narrative. That’s Game of Thrones.

Images courtesy of HBO and Cartoon Network

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