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On Belonging and 'Steven Universe'

Finding a way to make the thing for you

By Madison E. Johnson

The thing about feeling incredibly empowered by an animated children’s television show the summer after your freshman year of college is that you feel like you’ve been waiting forever it to happen. You remember the way you felt in elementary school, identifying with all the quirky young white kids, often white boys who were the main characters of all your favorite shows. Watching “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends,” watching “The Powerpuff Girls,” watching Cartoon Network when you weren’t supposed to, feeling almost there, almost like you’d found the kind of normal you could finally vibe with, then realizing no, maybe almost, but not quite.

Basically, I have a lot of feelings about "Steven Universe." "Steven Universe" is a show about semi-mythical beings (it’s confusing, it’s a children’s show so they spend ten episodes on fluffy filler and one episode explaining the actual science fiction of the show) who derive their powers from gems that are kind of lodged in their physical beings. They’re basically contained in the gems, and from there have the power to create humanoid forms. It’s kind of like “Orange is the New Black,” where the main character is a sort of boring white person and a cast of amazing characters of color branch out from their normalizing center, for the ad-execs, or whatever. There’s a character who is probably non-binary. One character exists as a fusion between two female identified characters who are in a relationship with each other. Anyway, it’s on Cartoon Network.

I spent my whole childhood waiting for the show. I stopped feeling empowered by being a “nerd” because nerds didn’t look like me, nerds weren’t awkward black girls with rectangle glasses and crocs. Nerds didn’t have the kind of problems my family had, didn’t think through the turmoil I did, didn’t get me. So I couldn’t get them, and so I watched my brother see superhero movies (and of course, he couldn’t get into them either), and so we sat at home and played Super Smash Bros. and went to school and tried to relate to the other kids who played Super Smash Bros, and failed miserably. (Granted, I was awful at SSB, but I was also like seven, so give me a break.)

The thing about being in high school and feeling incredibly enlivened by white pop punk bands is that you can yell along to the songs in your parents’ car, but at the end of the day, you aren’t worried about the things that they’re worried about. You aren’t worried about getting the girl, well, you are, but mostly you’re worried about whether or not getting the girl will ruin your relationship with your family, or whether getting the girl will put you in real, actual danger. And you can sing really loud, but you still don’t sound like the lead singer of The Wonder Years, and it still doesn’t feel like he could possibly get that.

It’s like how all your friends are mad hyped about Bernie Sanders, and you wish you could feel that excited about Bernie Sanders, but you can never be too sure that the things you care about care about you.

But this time, maybe the thing actually is for you. And maybe you identify so strongly with so many characters that you start to feel silly. And maybe you watch for a day straight, and you’re screaming and crying. And it’s a kids show, so it’s silly, but the last time you felt like you could relate to a show like this it was “Glee,” and everyone was problematic as hell, or it was “Pretty Little Liars” and the writing and production quality not only left absolutely everything to be desired but also left all the queer women sad or dead. And so it’s silly, and in no way is it perfect, but maybe it’s yours. Maybe this time you’re not just pretending. Maybe you sing the theme song on the way to class and the trees and the bricks and the stained glass start to feel like home. And all the brown people, all the queer people, even the ones you don’t get along with, even the ones who you’re intimidated by, even the one’s you don’t know and who don’t care to know you, are here to save the day. To save their own days, and everyone else’s. And today you get to be the superhero. You get to “save the world and then go out for pizza.” You get to geek out, alone in your bedroom, not worried about whether or not the fandom will look at you funny. Because you’re a crystal gem. Because you know what it feels to be shattered. Because you’re a long, long way from home. Because you didn’t get the girl. Because this place is so unfamiliar. Because it all hurts, all the time. But it doesn’t matter. Because you always find a way.

Madison E. Johnson ’18 lives in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays

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