You celebrate Steven Universe for offering a more positive role model for young boys. What is it doing that seems distinctive and progressive to you?
When I first saw Steven Universe on Cartoon Network, I was pleasantly surprised by its subversive themes and plotlines. A lot has been written about the show’s progressive values, and rightly so; it centers powerful women and contains relatively unambiguous positive depictions of queer relationships. Last year I produced two videos focusing on something that gets a little less attention: the downright revolutionary ways men and boys are represented.
One of those video essays explores Steven’s superpowers. This is an adventure show about a boy with superpowers derived from an interstellar gemstone, which he uses to summon a magical shield. It’s rare to see a boy hero given a largely defensive weapon instead of an offensive one. Indeed Steven’s main contributions to his superhero team are shielding, protecting and healing his teammates. Those are all traits traditionally associated for women in fantasy fiction. But beyond that I argue Steven has an additional less obvious superpower which is even more fundamental to his character and to the show’s values. And that’s Steven’s empathy, which plays a critical role in de-escalation and conflict resolution throughout the series. Again that’s something exceptionally rare to see with boy heroes in these kinds of narratives.
My other Steven Universe video essay focuses on emotional expression. In Hollywood men are typically not shown expressing vulnerable emotions, at least not outside of a very narrow set of traumatic circumstances, like when a loved one dies. Steven Universe doesn’t play by those rules, on that show men are regularly depicted as expressing a wide rage of vulnerable emotions in response to all kinds of social situations.
Whenever I talk about emotional expression in male characters, I make a point of emphasizing the “expression” part. Most male characters are, of course, written to have feelings and emotions on some level. It’s not uncommon for male heroes to harbor a deep-seated inner pain. However, that pain is usually left unspoken. We as audiences are meant to understand that male heroes experience intense feelings, but that turmoil is framed as something they must keep hidden. They’re very rarely shown openly communicating or vocalizing their vulnerable feelings. The emotions that men on the big screen are allowed to express are anger and rage. And those emotions are typically closely aligned with acts of violent revenge which are framed as a form of vigilante justice. Needless to say, this is the very definition of emotionally unhealthy.
Steven Universe is the exact opposite. As I mentioned, the show is absolutely packed with men and boys who are open and vocal about expressing their emotions. So for example, everyone in on the show cries. Men and boys are shown crying in most episodes, and more importantly, these tears are never presented as a sign of weakness. In fact, tears serve to communicate an impressively wide range of emotions, from joy to concern, from despair to pride, from frustration to love.
Steven and his father Greg are also not afraid of being physically affectionate with those around them, and not just when it comes to family or romantic partners either. Steven openly admits to being afraid, and he is never shamed for expressing that fear. Unlike many other coming-of-age stories about boy heroes, Steven’s growth does not hinge on learning to “conquer his fear.” Instead Steven learns that fear is a natural and useful emotion, something he should listen to, in order to help keep himself and those he cares about safe. All of this is exceptionally rare for television. It’s especially notable given that Steven Universe is an animated series aimed at younger audiences.
To what degree are the myths of masculinity you discuss inherited unconsciously as part of the genre formulas passed down from earlier generations of media makers? To what degree is masculinity being reimagined and reasserted today in equally destructive terms?
Certainly there are a whole bunch of regressive ideas about masculinity baked into many long-running traditions in genre fiction. Hollywood's current rush to remake and reboot franchises from decades past has meant we’ve seen images of aggressive manhood reproduced in uncritical ways. Over the past decade superhero movies have taken over the box office. That genre in particular lends itself to portrayals of manhood where physical intimidation, violence, and vengeance are framed as effective and heroic forms of conflict resolution for men. Incidentally that goes for both small interpersonal conflicts as well as larger intergalactic conflicts. We’ve also seen some entertainment that I’d categorize as being part of a conservative backlash against progressive or feminist gains. I already mentioned that some popular gaming franchises are especially guilty in this regard. Recent films by directors like Michael Bay, Zack Snyder, and Peter Berg would also fit into this category since many of their productions tend to unapologetically celebrate aggressive versions of hypermasculinity.
On the whole though, I do think a lot of Hollywood writers and media makers are much more aware of the potentially harmful conventions and clichés in their work these days. Unfortunately the relatively high level of media literacy on the production side hasn’t translated into much in the way of new or subversive storylines for male characters. What we get instead is an enormous amount of lampshading.
Lampshading is a writer's trick wherein media makers deliberately call attention to a dissonant, clichéd, or stereotypical aspect of their own production within the text itself. It’s basically a wink in the direction of the audience. Lampshading is often used as a way for media makers to acknowledge troubling or toxic gender representations in their production but then continue to uncritically indulge in those depictions. Lampshaded dialogue can make writers seem clever, self-aware, and even self-critical, while still largely sticking to Hollywood traditions. This then tends to make a piece of media seem more progressive or subversive than it really is.
My latest video essay, The Adorkable Misogyny of the Big Bang Theory, details how ironic lampshading is employed in comedies and sitcoms as a way to let nerdy “nice guys” off the hook for a wide range of creepy behaviors. But lampshading is increasingly used in dramas as well. It’s one of Joss Whedon's favorite writing techniques; he’ll often write humorous lines of dialogue to point out macho behaviors in his male characters, only to then have them keep engaging in those same behaviors. So for example there’s a scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron in which the male heroes take turns trying to lift Thor’s hammer. The witty writing acknowledges that these men are involved in what amounts to an extended “dick measuring” contest over who is the stronger superhero. There’s even a line where Black Widow makes fun of them all for it. In another Marvel movie from different directors, Captain America: Civil War, Black Widow asks point blank if the male hero really wants to “punch his way out” of a difficult situation. But again even though the problem is explicitly acknowledged in the text, nothing fundamentally changes in terms of how those male characters are depicted; they still solve the majority of their problems by punching other men in the face.
So I’d argue that while many Hollywood writers are on some level aware that toxic and violent masculinity is an issue, they either have no alternative or they don’t really believe it’s a big enough deal to take seriously-- preferring instead to acknowledge the issue and then double down on the same old formulas. The end result of all these forms of replication is the same: a market flooded with images of violent macho manhood, some done with a wink to the audience, but precious few representations that directly challenge the hypermasculine ideals of manhood.
So while the clichés of genre traditions are more readily acknowledge today, I’d argue that media makers are still trapped. However, it’s not that difficult to become unstuck. It just requires a willingness to defy audience expectations. I will say that there are a few exceptions to the rule where filmmakers do embrace atypical and empathetic versions of heroic masculinity. I recently made a video essay about the Harry Potter spin-off, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, in which I posit that the protagonist, Newt Scamander, is a welcome subversion of traditional male action-adventure heroes.
If you had the attention of people working in genre entertainment today (and I am sure you do), what would you most want them to learn from watching your videos?
First and foremost that their work isn’t just entertainment; media can have enormous impacts on people’s belief structures, worldview, attitudes, and sometimes behaviors. In various times and places around the world the role of storyteller has been a sacred and revered position because their job includes the responsibility of passing on lessons, values, and cultural identity to a younger generation. Media makers are the most influential storytellers of today and, like it or not, there is a lot of power that comes with that job.
And it’s possible to do things differently even within the confines of a major studio production. The Martian, for example, was a widely successful, thrilling, edge-of-your-seat blockbuster, and one that remarkably contains absolutely no images of men solving problems with violence. All conflicts are solved through the use of science, cooperation, and human ingenuity.
As I mentioned above, another successful movie with an unconventional male hero is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Newt performs a refreshingly atypical form of masculinity. He’s sincere, nurturing, empathetic and sensitive. And, crucially, that sensitivity is framed as a strength rather than a weakness.
It may sound cliché to say that “with great power comes great responsibility,” but it’s true, and it’s especially true when it comes to Hollywood. Media makers have a responsibility to be careful and intentional about the messages and values embedded in their stories. If producers and filmmakers are willing to take the risk of showing emotionally vulnerable, communicative, empathetic versions of leading manhood, I think they’ll find a large audience out there that is hungry for those alternative depictions of manhood.
Jonathan McIntosh is a media critic, remix artist, and video essayist. He has been remixing mass media narratives for critical and educational purposes since before the invention of YouTube. He serves on the advisory board of New Media Rights, a non-profit organization working to protect the rights of digital media makers. His current project, The Pop Culture Detective Agency, is a series of long-form video essays exploring the intersections of politics, masculinity, and entertainment.