by Layla Casares
It was early 2015 and while cruising aimlessly on the internet, I came across a clip from a cartoon I had never seen before. Two feminine characters were shown dancing together, then in a burst of light, they melded together to form a giant character; this character seemed to be entirely their own separate entity despite being made of up two people. Having been drawn in by such a powerful scene, I entered the comments section to see if I could find the name of the show to begin watching it as soon as possible. Fortunately, I found the name: Steven Universe.
The main five seasons of the cartoon aired on Cartoon Network from November of 2013 to January of 2019. In addition to its interesting art style, color scheme, and elements of magic and sci-fi, it established itself as a show set on being inclusive and diverse by including characters that represent members of the LGBT+ community. The show also touches on the topic of mental illness and what can be done to improve one’s mental health through the use of healthy coping mechanisms, and even went over recognizing unhealthy behavior in relationships in both a platonic and romantic context.
A particular example comes from the fourth episode of the fourth season, “Mindful Education,” which features a song called “Here Comes a Thought”. The subject matter of the song addresses the issue of anxiety and how it can be overwhelming, but encourages the listener to take a moment to stop what they are doing and breathe in order to gain some control over the cacophony in their mind. When Steven and his best friend, Connie, fuse together, they create a character named Stevonnie; in this episode, Stevonnie experiences a great deal of anxiety as a result of Steven and Connie’s combined stresses. In order to calm Stevonnie down, Garnet, one of Steven’s guardians, sings “Here Comes a Thought”. Another episode, “Alone at Sea” (season three, episode fifteen), demonstrates to the audience the importance of putting one’s foot down in order to cut ties with people in their life who were harmful to their physical and mental wellbeing. At the end of the first season, the characters Jasper and Lapis Lazuli formed a toxic fusion. Fusions are meant to be based on mutual trust, but Jasper wanted to fuse to gain the power to defeat Steven, and Lapis agreed to the fusion, but with the intention to trap Jasper within it. In “Alone at Sea,” Jasper and Lapis experience a dreadful reunion after having been separated from each other at the beginning of the third season; Jasper begs for Lapis to fuse with her again, to which Lapis is tempted, but ultimately remains firm and casts her away.
A piece of media such as Steven Universe is beneficial to audiences of all ages, especially in a time where older social norms are being traded for new ones. In recent years, censorship has become less strict, allowing producers such as Rebecca Sugar, the producer of Steven Universe, to openly address the various issues that may have previously been considered too sensitive or taboo, especially for an audience comprising largely of children. This makes the process of learning these new ideas easier than it would be without the representation.
On the flip side, however, there seems to be a new generation of mini media critics set on nitpicking every aspect of a piece of media that could potentially be lacking. Many times, their criticism is not constructive or sufficiently supported with examples from the source. They focus on the aspects that are not as significant in the grand scheme of the story, forming negative, and even hateful, opinions of different parts of the show. For example, they may hate on a character for making mistakes, even if they are meant to be written as a flawed character and it was a part of their redemption arc. In the past, these critics have even threatened producers for accidentally misrepresenting information about the LGBT+ community.
In other media, creators have done their best to work around censorship and support minority groups through representation. Despite this, there always seems to be those who do not appreciate the effort and demand more. The creators make an effort to ensure they accurately represent the big issues they want to go over in their show, only to have that work disregarded because they missed an opportunity to represent another issue. It is as if these individuals consume media only to point out what it is that the creator did not pay attention to, instead of consuming it in an attempt to enjoy it and appreciate the representation it actually does have—representation that was certainly not prioritized before the 21st century.
Achieving perfection when creating a piece of media is not realistic and should not necessarily be the aim, but it seems as though these mini critics have forgotten this, or perhaps they have yet to realize it. To them, it is either all or nothing; if it meets their standards it is pure and everyone should look into it, but if it does not it is trash and should not see the light of day. These critical individuals tend to place extra focus on the shortcomings born out of the sheer lack of time, and perhaps resources, to cover every topic they feel should be included. They misinterpret and dismiss the intended message entirely, accusing the creator of having maliciously left out information, when in reality it was likely something unintendedly overlooked during the creation process. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with critiquing shortcomings. In fact, it does a great service to the creators to receive feedback for the future reference of their work, but there is a significant difference between providing constructive criticism and simply complaining about the mistakes.
Another recent example of this phenomenon can be found in relation to the video game Sally Face by Steve Gabry. It is a click and point adventure game centered around dark themes such as mystery, murder, and the paranormal. The story follows Sal Fisher, aka Sally Face, who is on trial for mass murder; he recounts the strange events following his move with his father from New Jersey to the town of Nockfell. The video game is split into five chapters and was released on Steam, an online video game store, from December 15, 2016 to December 13, 2019. With the final episode having just recently been released, fans of the game have been providing both positive and negative feedback.
Admittedly, the final chapter did have some clear issues, the main one being that the plot of the ending was rushed in favor of focusing on the interesting visuals that went into the chapter. Many of the questions that had formed over the span of the game’s development were left unanswered. For the most part, the feedback has been constructive, people remaining civil while voicing their thoughts and opinions on the chapter. Seemingly out of nowhere, however, some people began to accuse Gabry of perpetuating racist and homophobic tropes in the chapter because of a couple of characters who passed away. These characters were Neil and Travis; Neil was African American and gay, having been in a relationship with one of the main characters before his death, and Travis was revealed to be gay, but closeted. The critics making these claims believe that it was inherently racist and homophobic to have these characters die, when in reality the deaths of these characters made sense given the context of the story and the parts they played. It is not as though Neil and Travis were the only characters to pass away throughout the span of the game. Gabry made sure to include characters that were diverse in race, ethnicity, and orientation, therefore in a game centered around the theme of death, of course some of the characters who die would be people be a part of minority groups.
Who are these critical individuals? Based off my observations throughout my time on the internet, these people actually tend to be quite young; the majority are teenagers and people in their twenties, with the occasional thirty-something year old. This might have something to do with the fact that this age group is the most active on social media sites, such as Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram, where most of this discourse is taking place. What I believe is happening is that the younger people are being influenced by others online who have strong, but perhaps misguided and misinformed, opinions on the media currently circulating which perpetuates a cycle of individuals learning to think in a harsh and radical manner. They try to remain vigilant of the discrimination that may still be contained in certain pieces of media, but end up singling out the media that is actively attempting to separate itself from such discrimination. In addition to that, they tend to place media that is diverse and inclusive on a pedestal because they are excited to find it; when they do this, they believe it is perfect because it has what they want in it, but if the creators start to take the story in a direction they do not like, they will discard it and say that it and the creators are problematic.
As for what this spells for the future of media, I believe that if this problem remains unresolved, the number of irrational critics would increase. The voices of the rational individuals in a piece of media’s following would be drowned out by the louder voices of those who throw tantrums, which in turn would put even more pressure on creators. Even if these people were to take the place of current producers once they are of age, it is likely they would soon find it hard to meet the expectations they have for themselves and their work; they would end up under the same scrutiny they were dishing out to begin with. It may not be so simple, but one way or another they must learn that they can acknowledge that a piece of media and its creators have room for improvement while still enjoying it; it does not mean that they do not care about the equality and representation of minorities.