Steven Universe

Some of the enormous cast of Steven Universe
Some of the enormous cast of Steven Universe – click to embiggen

(This is third in a series on comics and cartoons that I enjoy. They’re not in any particular order except that some of them will be harder to write about so I’m leaving those toward the end. If you’re tired of superhero movies that concentrate on amped-up violence with some tacked-on human-interest story, this series is for you.)

The back-story is that Steven is an irrepressible kid whose mother and father were an alien and a human. His mother was the leader of a rebel remnant group that came to Earth some thousands of years ago, and became the planet’s adoptive protectors. Three of that group remain; Amethyst, Garnet, and Pearl, and together with his human father Greg Universe they are raising Steven. His mother Rose Quartz, having taken human form, had to choose between her own existence and Steven’s. This becomes an  important plot point later.

For a show with such simple (if beautiful) animation, it has deeply imagined characters and mythology. All of the characters have complex needs and flaws, and perhaps because of that complexity you will see none of the stereotype of bumbling fatherhood or zany antics for their own sake. The show does one thing really well; it imagines how an actual loving family might work against insurmountable odds. Even if three of them had taken human form as a comforting illusion to the others.

You could almost pick a character at random to illustrate this point, but their leader Garnet will suffice. She is immensely powerful, but quiet and reserved. And yet it is obvious how deeply she loves Steven and how that love is returned. Imagine if your mother were a hyper-intelligent pile driver with a deadpan sense of humor.

OK one more example: Pearl was literally built for entertainment, as a singer and dancer. After four thousand years of combat she is kind and sweet and still looks gracile and delicate but her body count would fill a stadium. The scene where she teaches Steven’s girlfriend Connie how to fight with a sword is lovely and chilling.

Much of the conflict in the show comes from the fact that the rebels’ home world has not forgotten and does not forgive. But they are not a monolithic evil either. One of my favorite characters (see if you can figure out why) is Peridot, an exiled technician whose growing appreciation for Earth has put her at odds with Homeworld and all its sadistic and lethal power.

Much has been written by others about SU’s dissolution of formal gender concepts, and this is one of the most refreshing things about the show. Until you take in a story where gender doesn’t define much of anything, it’s difficult to appreciate just how in our world it defines far too much.

Like another cartoon that I will write about later, SU has inspired tons of fan fiction and some truly awesome art and music. And thinking about it, inspiration may be a good measure of the cultural value of a franchise. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s very little Bugs Bunny fan fiction, fan art, or fan music.

There’s a whole lot more and I could go on for hours, but Steven Universe is a splendid cartoon that I cannot recommend too highly.

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  • To reiterate, LET YOUR KIDS WATCH STEVEN UNIVERSE. Watch it with them.
  • Greg Universe looks like Homer Simpson if Homer had magnificent hair, but two humans could not be more different.
  • Video: “What’s Up With Steven Universe” describes the characters and cartoon style.
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Dumbing Of Age

Becky's dad comes to campus with a gun
Click to visit the beginning of this story line

(Second in a series on comics and cartoons that I enjoy)

One of my daily reads is Dumbing Of Age, an ensemble cast comic about college freshmen. DOA is a long-running comic by David Willis, one of the most accomplished web comic artists out there. He maintains something like a three-month buffer of completed comics – and this isn’t his only strip.

DOA is a web comic about redemption, as the characters try to get past the fears they’ve learned and the pain they’ve caused and experienced themselves. The main character, Joyce, is autobiographical to the artist and reflects his upbringing in a fundamentalist Christian environment.

Being an ensemble cast the story lines jump around a bit, interweaving through many connections. But in spite of the famously glacial pace of the main timeline, there’s plenty of action. One of the characters is a college-age superhero, another an ex-juvenile delinquent. A journalism major who takes herself too seriously, a maybe-autistic student, and…

The strip isn’t called “Dumbing Of Age” for nothing. None of the characters is unusually wise or mature, making personal and interpersonal mistakes while reflecting the mistakes their parents made bringing them up.

The artist David Willis does meticulous research on everything that appears in the strip, from actual locations in Bloomington, Indiana to the authentic issues of various characters. And it shows in the strip. But the comment section offers as much as the strip itself, having become a forum for gender issues, neuroatypicality, religion, suicide prevention, academic integrity, and… much more. It’s practically tailor-made to many of my own interests. So I rate it A+, highly recommended.

Strong Female Protagonist

 

Allison Green and the mysterious professor
When you can punch out a giant robot but should you, and does it even make a difference? Click to visit the beginning of this exchange.

(This is first in a series on comics I read and cartoons I watch. From that list I pretty much chose this one at random. If you’re tired of superhero movies that concentrate on amped-up violence with some human-interest story tacked on, this series is for you.)

Allison Green is in her mother’s womb when the Earth is shrouded in bizarre storms. Not that thunderstorms are unusual, but that they cover most of the Earth’s surface. The strange phenomenon begins and ends, with little apparent damage. For just over a decade, it is only a scientific curiosity.

And then the cohort of children who were at a certain stage of gestation during the storm reached puberty, and things began to happen. Many were transformed into strange forms, or developed unusual abilities. A few could become invisible, or read minds, or communicate with animals. Allison became the most famous. She developed super-strength, and near invulnerability. She is literally a Strong Female Protagonist (SFP).

So far the story is pretty standard comic book fare, covered well by Marvel, DC, and a few other publishers. And those comics do a good job of speculating on the lives of super-powered individuals, provided they were quite rare. In the SFP world, though, thousands of individuals around the world are ‘dynomorphic’, having a modified gene and sometimes very different appearance or abilities.

SPF is a comic about making better use of power. There’s still plenty of villain punching, but how we use our power – superhero, individual nerd with a computer, or nation-state – is something we all have in common.

Allison’s power is pretty much that of 1950’s Superman. Pressed into service as a teenager by a government desperate for help with the dynomorphic crisis, she was essentially a child soldier, with all the baggage that implies. By the time she goes to college she has tossed aside the protection of her secret identity and has figured out that punching the bad guys is fraught with detours and opportunities for unforeseen consequence. She is also generalizing the lesson of watching her father slowly dying from cancer, that there’s only so much good you can do in the world with your fist. To make any real change, you have to do something much harder.

So, is SFP just the Marvel and DC universe with a lot more feminism? I have no doubt some readers will think so. But the shift in perspective is completely worth the trip. Because many “radical” ideas, are simply pointing out that the status quo we all accept as normal is a pretty radical departure from justice and basic humanity. The really difficult problem is how to get back there.

  • Discuss this post on Facebook and Twitter
  • Strong Female Protagonist starts here
  • Second in this series is Dumbing of Age
  • My parents told me that at about age four, I worked out that the pictures in the Sunday comics made up a story, and right then started to learn how to read. I don’t remember any of this of course, but comics have always had a special place in my heart. As an adult I found out they can carry quite serious content, which grew into a standing addiction to graphic novels and web comics.

Does happiness require a note from your doctor?

Screen shot of abstract of gay gene article on Pub Med
Why do we need to just treat people decently who are trying to be happy?

For years we’ve heard arguments that since GLBT people are born the way they are, they deserve equal rights.  And that’s fine, because most straight people believe they were born straight*. But on another level, what difference should it make?

When Thomas Jefferson said that the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were “unalienable rights”, why would that not include consensual relationships?  Why would it not include personal image and identity? Take your time, I’ll wait.

It doesn’t matter if there’s a biological basis or not. I don’t care if gay people get up in the morning and take a special pill that makes them gay; they still deserve equal protection under the law. If a young person is miserable in their socially-assigned gender and happier in another gender or none at all, isn’t that the pursuit of happiness? You know, that “unalienable right”? We fought a war over the right of self-determination, and then another, even bigger war.

The concept applies here. If GLBT people make you queasy, that’s on you, not on them. Try to set your discomfort aside for a little while and just listen. Maybe try reading something written by them instead of stuff written about them by people trying to change them.

If your religion is telling you to make their lives worse, also read up on life in historic theocracies.

Isn’t common decency enough reason to just let other people be happy? Maybe even be happy for them? For that matter, why do we even need a reason to celebrate someone else’s joy? Who knows you might make some new friends, and find yourself in a better, happier world.

Notes:

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  • No special reason I’m writing this now except it’s something I’ve said for years, and I just wanted to get it down in writing.
  • I’m not against trying to find out if there’s a genetic basis for GLBT orientation. It is a legitimate scientific question. But even if it is found, I can imagine several scenarios where, instead of defusing prejudice, it becomes the basis of discrimination. A change is needed in our attitude toward people whose happiness is different from our own.
  • *Or, not so very different. Straight guys, in particular, are socialized to never even entertain the possibility that they might not be 100% straight. This is more important than religion or patriotism or even Ford vs Chevvy.

National Geographic special issue on the Gender Revolution

National Geographic Gender Special Issue Covers

Back in the early 1960’s, I found out real quick that acting the least bit girly made me a big disappointment. And often, subject to violence. So I tried, and failed, to be as masculine as I was expected to be. Hold that thought, and I’ll circle back around to it in a minute. I want to talk about this magazine issue first.

Y’all saw the National Geographic gender issue, right? The one with a teenaged transgender girl on the cover? Or, if you bought it on the newsstand, with a group portrait representing several gender identities.*

From it’s founding in 1888, the National Geographic has always been about human culture, including an understanding of gender. If you read issues going back to the beginning, there is no shortage of photos and prose describing how other cultures handle the differences between men and women. This was just fine as long as it didn’t hold up too big of a mirror to us.

But in the January 2017 issue, they focused on changes in the Western understanding of sex and gender, pointedly comparing to other cultures around the world. And hoo-boy did that raise a ruckus. I mean, people wrote in, and they were not happy.** “Cancel my subscription!” they said. “Stick to geography!” they said. “You’re promoting child abuse!” they said.

Well, calm down, angry National Geographic readers. People keep finding different ways to be human. Go read your back issues – every subscriber has them – and you see this is nothing new. Maybe it’s the first time a whole issue has been devoted to it, is all.

The issue compares gender norms and variations all around the world. There’s a brutal article about manhood rituals. The issue examines the risks of nonconformity, and those of simply being female. There’s a glossary. And a whole bunch of 9-year-old kids speak about their experiences.

But most importantly, the issue grapples with gender as a social construct. That one takes a while to sink in: Your gender is an artifact of your culture. It means meeting a whole lot of social expectations. It is by no means set in stone. Or in your genes.

Being a man, or a woman, is a very different thing in different societies. For some, the distinction is not so sharp, or even necessarily binary. In other cultures, including our own, the line between Venus and Mars is marked by trench warfare. You are either male or female, and that is defined by what your doctor saw when you were born, and that’s it.

You know how men constantly accuse women of being hormonal and irrational? Our civilization is about to die from testosterone poisoning. Aggression is mistaken for ‘leadership’, and the ability to deny facts is some kind of strength. That binary, “man _or_ woman” with no variation, is killing our country and our planet. And it all starts when we are children.

Most of the anger at National Geographic seems to be generated by the issue’s portrayal of transgender kids. The gender binary would suggest that all kids are born either male or female, and that if a boy puts on a dress or paints his nails, his parents must have put him up to it.

In our culture, the opposite is true. For example: you can say “she’s a bit of a tomboy” about a girl, and for the most part people won’t think much about it. But if a boy is accused of being a bit girly, well… stand back. And, I’m speaking from experience here. As a kid I didn’t know there were non-toxic ways to be a boy; I just thought I was a failed boy. A disappointment to everyone. I’ll tell that story sometime, in another post.

Most distinguishing human characteristics fall on a spectrum. The train from “He’s all boy!” to “She’s such a girly-girl!” has a lot of stops along the way. And kids of “both” sexes are on it.

You know what happens to kids who don’t fit their assigned gender identity? It depends on whether their family and friends accept them.

One of the parents in the magazine took their child to a doctor, and the doctor asked her: “Would you rather have a happy little girl, or a dead little boy?”

So I’m saying; by all means read the special issue of National Geographic. It probably isn’t perfect but it’s pretty damn good. Above all, if you have kids, just think about it, OK? Give yourself time to make sense out of it, and really listen to your kids.

NOTES:

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  • *Subscribers got the cover on the left. The cover on the right was put on the news stand edition. They forgot to include a CIS female, and then flubbed the answer when somebody asked them about it. Just once I’d like to see someone say; “We forgot! It probably means what you think it means, and we’re incredibly embarrassed about it!”
  • **Anybody else think some people protest a bit too much? Arguing in favor of our chains. Who knows what we might realize if we start thinking about it! Dangerous.

The performance of masculinity

SOG multitool ad
“Look Like A Guy, Feel Like THE MAN”
Swiss Army Knife
The original multitool

I carry a pocketknife with me everywhere , and always have. That’s something not a lot of men do anymore, but to me a pocketknife is simply an essential creative repair tool. I use this one, equipped with a small blade, can opener, couple screwdrivers and an awl, many times a day. So naturally when I found out SOG had made a new multitool I wanted to check it out.

Until I saw this ad, that is.

Don’t get me wrong; I love cleverly designed tools, and by cracky, I have the skillz to use them. But I am absolutely done with this ‘masculinity as anger and violence’ model. Its only value is as proof of the hard-won realization that gender is a social construct.

Let that soak in: how we understand being a man is a performance, a set of social expectations. And it’s mostly for the benefit of other men who might be watching. Men constantly insult other men by calling them women. This is so pervasive it is used in advertising; you can get your ‘Man Card’ reissued by owning a particular kind of assault rifle. And, apparently, if you carry this well-designed SOG tool.

The term for this performance is “Toxic Masculinity” and it means you have been raised with a very narrow range of permitted emotions. Or for that matter interests and careers.

Frozen in carbonite
What it feels like to me

This works out fine for men who are comfortable in the mold, but not everyone wants to get their whole lifetime supply of oxygen through a tiny opening in their emotional range.

Men are allowed to be ‘tough’ but not tender (which is funny, because NASA tests, not to mention history itself, demonstrated long ago that women are just as tough as men). Men are not allowed to cry but they can shout in anger. Manly sports must be violent, and children who decline to participate are shamed. No amount of personal damage is too high a price to pay for this cultural essential.

I was, in fact, a pretty effeminate boy, but that aspect of my personality was relentlessly punished. Today, decades later, I am stuck there, with wounds so habitually defended I have no idea how to uncover them or treat them.

Look around for a few days. Listen to other people talk, especially to children. Look at advertising. Look for the gentle boy on the playground and see how he’s treated. And spare a moment to appreciate people who break the rigid gender roles into which their assignment at birth had encased them. Think of them as pioneers, opening up a world where we could all breathe a little more easily.

NOTES:

  • Discuss this post on Facebook and Twitter
  • My ‘standard kit’ consists of eyeglasses, pen, index cards, watch, keys, minimalist wallet, Swiss Army knife, magnifying glass, and phone.
  • You’re darn right there are constricting counterparts in the social construct of being a woman. Start with women in STEM fields and politics. It’s a big topic.
  • The ad appeared in the July 2017 Wired magazine.
  • Terms for inadequately ‘masculine’ men: ‘pussy’, ‘mangina’, ‘little girl’, ‘girly-man’, ‘cuck’, and various constructs of lacking ‘balls’. And nearly infinite variations of all those.
  • Feminism and gender expression are too big to fit in one rant about a stupid ad. I’m creating a new category on my blog to write about it some more.
  • Just to be clear, pioneering is often dangerous. Non gender-conforming people are often discriminated against, shunned, assaulted and even killed.
  • You can find many articles claiming that gender is strictly or mostly biological, but sex and gender aren’t the same thing.

 

The Dawkins Difficulty

Richard Dawkins
Biologist and author Richard Dawkins. Photo from cover of “Climbing Mount Improbable”. He’s a lot older now.

I have a lot of books by Richard Dawkins, mostly about evolutionary biology. (My favorite is probably Climbing Mount Improbable.) He also wrote a book about atheism called The God Delusion, which I found… pretty mediocre, frankly.

I say that not because TGD is a bad book, but because there are better books about unbelief, going all the way back to Robert Ingersoll. For that matter, Hank Fox’s Redneck, Blue-Collar Atheist is a better book. It covers all the important ground while being more approachable and a hell of a lot more entertaining. Plus, shorter.

But somewhere along the line Dawkins discovered The Internets, and we learned a side of him that we wish we hadn’t. For most of us, it started on the day he posted his infamous “Dear Muslima” comment on Pharyngula. Which, ignoring the first rule of holes, he still defends. And which then because a cause celebre of various genuinely misogynistic  bottom-feeders, which grew exponentially into an internet phenomenon aptly known as the “Slymepit”.

So why would this ever be a problem? Didn’t Richard Dawkins notice the slymepit, disavow them, and apologize for “Dear Muslima”? Well, a little bit. And then he proceeded to screw it up with a bunch of tweets where he thought feminists were too upset about rape culture, because women are not logical like him.

Really. “Go away and learn to think,” he said. Because some rapes are totally worse than others, you shouldn’t complain about the mild ones.

Many people have responded to this discovery by ditching their Dawkins books and basically writing him off as both a biology writer and an atheist avatar. And that’s fine. As I have watched one science dude after another* (both current and posthumous) discovered as sexist jerks, my own approach is this:

If the science dude in question is not living, I have to look at the culture of gender relations of their time. Do they get a “pass”?  No. But to require dead people to be ahead of their time is to require the same of yourself. Are you really ahead of your time? I doubt that I am, though I have the good fortune to have friends who create space for me to be more progressive than I once was.

This is not to say that no one deserves a pat on the back for being progressive; every culture has a range of “reactionary to progressive” on which one might position oneself. But as my mother used to say, “Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back.” Or, reaching for a cookie.

We expect physics leaders to be ahead of their time… in physics. Just as we expect civil rights leaders to be ahead of their time in civil rights, and so on. People aren’t potatoes; they got parts to ’em.

NOTES:

  • You may not know about any of this; you may only know Dawkins as the slightly snotty English scholar who coined the word “Meme” and who played a big part in the high profile of the stupidly-named “New Atheism”. (It’s just atheism, folks. The only thing “new” about it is that some of us are tired of being quiet about the abuses of religion.)
  • This post was inspired by Dana Hunter’s Attention Coyne, Dawkins, and Harris: you are part of the problem.
  • …and by PZ Myers’ The Atheist Disillusionment, wherein he confesses that he had been naive about the end of religion improving humans much. And in “Dismayingly Dawkins“, wherein he deconstructs the don’s latest dissemblance, as of November 2014.
  • And by A+, the social-justice flavor of atheism. Here’s Why I support A+ on my old, archived blog.
  • The Nation: Atheists show their sexist side
  • *Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Michael Shermer, Thunderf00t, Isaac Asimov, Richard Feynman, are the ones I’m aware of so far. Not a pretty picture.
  • Dawkins didn’t create the Slymepit, but he certainly has fertilized it.
  • Avicenna: Dear Dawkins
  • Skepchick: The Silencing of Richard Dawkins