Over the last year, squeezing onto my friend's couch to catch up on Steven Universe has become a potluck of feelings. The show's appeal is obvious: A half-alien, half-human boy tries to get a handle on his Crystal Gem (read: superhero) powers while stepping into a mantle left behind by his alien mother to defend and protect Earth. That's a call to adventure that's practically inescapable, but what called to me instead was watching Steven navigate the overwhelmingly masculine blueprint of heroism by remolding it into something softer, kinder, more Steven. The gentleness in Steven is a force in itself because he refuses to compromise even when battle is necessary, and it bruised me in places I thought long calloused over.
Looking back, I believe my father's words — "Somethin' wrong, you dressing a-feminint" — unraveled in me a need for a fierce secrecy starting in the early 2000s. My mother had been remarried for little more than a half decade, but in that time, my conceptions of manhood had more or less been formed by pastors in the Southern Baptist tradition, Sunday school teachers of the same ilk, Euro-American literature, and Japanese cartoons. All of them began with man as harbinger of strength, holding the whip in one hand and sacred texts in the other. Believe or be struck. Believe or be discarded. The first crime I committed was being dainty. The next was wanting to show myself anyway.
During the opening stretch of my teenage years, my father and I argued about socks almost every day. At that time, when every one of us at my overpacked public school wore the same clothes, part of the measure of your cool was not just the shoes you wore but how you wore them. You could have the flyest, most expensive kicks you waited in line for, but if you weren't wearing them right, you were subject to, at the very least a side-eye, and at most a full-on clowning. These were the rules, spoken and unspoken: no smudges, no creases (especially in your all-white Air Forces), and they gotta match with the uniform shirt. Those socks brought the whole look together. If you were wearing shorts with basketball sneakers, you wore black socks with the Nike swoosh or Adidas cocaine lines. If the brand didn't hit mid-calf, you'd have to opt for the ankle socks thinly peeking just over the topline. The dawn of my life in style was there, the principles of upkeep and authenticity — whatever that word meant at the time — were born there. But my dad, aka Big Old School Country (despite never having lived there), was not trying to let me shine.
"Pull up your socks, mayne. Don't let me tell you again. Somethin' wrong, you dressin' a-feminint."
The problem with ankle socks, let my dad tell it, is that they showed off too much of my dainty legs. Before I'd leave for school every morning, he'd wait for me to sprint down the stairs, look me up and down, tell me to pull up my pant leg, and check if I was wearing ankle socks. And then he'd tell me to switch them out for the ugliest, whitest, tallest tube socks in the drawer, nullifying any potential swag I'd have that day. After a while, I'd either pack two pairs in my bag, switch them out on the bus, and go my merry way, or, I'd roll down the tubes into my shoe just in line with the lip. The style and protest were worth the discomfort, I reasoned. But often, I'd forget to put the home pair back on, and as I walked up the path to my front door, I'd quickly fumble with my shoes. Sometimes my dad would catch me as he looked out the window: "I'm not gonna talk to you again about these socks, son," the threat of the whip roiling underneath his words.
I think about the turmoil of those ankle socks as a kind of education about a world that is going to judge this black boy-child on every aspect of himself, a blush of understanding about this empire of a country that will come to define me on its own terms before it ever comes to know me. And that's just me, the boy-child; it'd be another half-decade of observing and learning before I even considered what life was like for little black girls, another decade for those who live in between and outside the gender binary.
I think about that knowledge-building quite a bit while taking in the bits of culture marketed to children in their pubescent years and considering how they're learning to build a new social order from it. And on the day (MLK Day no less) when I watched the thrilling season finale of Rebecca Sugar's Steven Universe series, holding my breath for the Crystal Gems' epic encounter with the Queen Gem, White Diamond, the memory of my repression — a dainty, effeminate boy floating somewhere indefinable enough on the gender spectrum that he needed to hide everything from clothes to kindness from his parents — flooded my consciousness.
Steven is a 14-year-old boy, the son of a human father and an alien mother who came to Earth as part of a colonizing expedition that would ultimately sap the planet of life. But Steven's mom, a Gem named Rose Quartz, fell in love with Earth and all it represented, and she led a team of misfits called the Crystal Gems in a failed uprising against the tyrannical rule of the Diamonds. In the show's final episodes, it's revealed to Steven and his fellow Crystal Gems that Rose herself was actually Pink Diamond, one of Homeworld's dictators, and she forsook her throne and faked her death to take up the cause of the Crystal Gems. And then, she gave up her form so Steven could be born.
Within the guts of Steven Universe sits a mystery: What happened to Steven's mother, Pink Diamond? Is she still alive somewhere within Steven, trapped in the gemstone he inherited from her? Are they simply different incarnations of the same being, or is Steven more than a human avatar for an all-powerful Gem? The show is more than a colorful rumination on the life of a little boy who is supposedly "destined" to save the world, more than a commentary on what it means to live as a child of an activist — of a revolutionary, really. It's the story of a perpetual becoming, one where said boy learns to let himself be himself and fall in love with all the feminine, masculine, human, alien, and otherwise unquantifiable energies that lie within. Leading up to this season's conclusion were a litany of feverish questions that had yet to be resolved. And it was here, in the finale, that we as an audience got those answers.
In its climax, this episode of Steven Universe features one of the most stunning visualizations of non-binary self-love I've ever encountered. In its final moments, White Diamond — the tyrant empress of Gem society-- physically separates Steven from his gemstone, his essence, in order to accost his mother. Not seeing herself as the villain in this scenario, White Diamond believes that Pink Diamond has tainted her fellow Crystal Gems, and that they need to be "fixed" and free of any flaws.
"It's time to come out, Pink," White Diamond smiles, plucking the gemstone from Steven's stomach, expecting to see the long-lost Pink emerge. In a flash of fuchsia, the gem reforms itself into a quiet, pink-hued copy of Steven. When human Steven wakes, he's a weak husk of himself, barely able to breathe. He gasps, unable to stand, reaching out to his essence, "I need..." The pink Steven doesn't blink, and he walks towards his other half while a synthed out bass patters in-step.
This wasn't what White Diamond expected. "Where is Pink?!" she demands. "SHE'S GONE!" the pink Steven replies. Furious, she attacks the pink Steven. "I only want you to be yourself. If you can't do that, I'll do it for you," she screams, while her attacks are easily foiled by the pink Steven.
Steven's best friend, Connie, carries his enervated body to himself. And, for a moment, the boy is wrapped in the arms of his essence, and they look at one another. Tears sparkle in Steven's eyes, and a smile notches across his face. A string symphony springs forth as the camera swings around them, placing them in the foreground of White Diamond's astonished face. They laugh,spin, and embrace, becoming one once again — a boy coming back into himself with arms wrapped tightly around the self he's grown to love so fervently.
"Are you back together? Are you you?" Connie asks Steven. "Yeah, I'm me. I've always been me," Steven replies.
And there sits the answer to the mystery. While White Diamond — and the show's legion of fans — tried to pry apart Steven for answers, tried to assign clean, organized labels to everything from his hybrid physical form to his understanding of gender, sexuality, and self, the truth is Steven can only be understood as whole. To call him a sweet boy isn't enough; to call him non-binary, trans-species humanoid isn't enough; to call him a superhero might be closer, but it still doesn't capture who Steven is. As White Diamond discovers through the forced separation of his human body and his gem, Pink Diamond and her power is one of the many ingredients that make up who Steven is. As Steven discovers when he reunites the human and alien halves of himself, he is more than simply the parts of himself that are useful to the Earth revolution or the Homeworld diamonds. And once he understands that the seemingly impractical parts of himself — the ones concerned with making sure all his friends get along, or jamming with the cool kids' band, or simply working at the car wash with his dad — are still valuable because they are a part of him, and he, as a whole, is important.
In the luminescent tango that follows, Sugar amplifies the kinds of affirmations of self, of appreciation, of the non-buzzwordy community that saves kids struggling with positioning themselves within a social order that demands a miserable conditioning, a tedium of extensive labeling. Sugar understands better than most what kids are owed — an unassailable gratitude for everything that they are, one that places externalized identifiers, whether constructs (masculine, feminine), sexual identifiers (straight, queer), or outmoded aesthetics (blue for boys, pink for girls) on the back burner. It is a work that stresses the importance of self-love that does away with preachiness and asserts that with self-love, anyone can find a place in the wide, vast universe where they belong.
I think about what it means to grow up under the weight of a Southern-bred activist in my own life. My father has been fighting for the recognition of imprisoned black Texans buried under Houston's soil, and after almost 20 years he's finally succeeded. He's gotten coverage everywhere. His quest has been covered in the Washington Post and the New York Times, and he just did a talk at Harvard. Of course I'm proud of him. I remember coming home once after graduating and the encouragement he gave me to keep writing, keep fighting for the recognition of our people because he'd grown tired. "I don't know how much longer I can do this," he said. But I also wish he'd fought a little harder against the tradition of repression that formed him, the repression he reapplied to my brother and me as we grew up in that house. I wish he'd fought a little harder for me to recognize all the parts of myself, be they black or completely invisible to the naked eye, and be gracious for all the parts of me, not just the ones useful to him.
To see him go so hard for the lives of black people no longer with us while forcing my brother and me into a kind of marginalized existence at home left us resentful. And to be sure, we had our blowups about chores, joining and leaving social clubs, and school report cards — but so much of the shouting during my teenage years was, from my vantage, about not being seen or tended to with the respect and compassion that they so graciously shelled out elsewhere. Our communication felt transactional, fearful, and distant. They just didn't have the tools to deal with my "a-feminint" temperament in a way that considered those feelings seriously, any acknowledge of my emotional state ended in a rallying call to push through and beyond it. That's not to say they didn't try in their own ways. But they could never fully imagine a different way.
I cannot divorce the history of the South from my folks' predisposition to a kind of parental militancy. They're kind, yes, but they always balanced their politeness with a strictness that bound them from becoming too friendly. In order to be black and live in the Jim Crow South, they aligned themselves — quite militantly — with a respectful, morally-upstanding politic to render themselves safe. Being a family was a matter of survival first. I imagine it's a terrifying thing to bring a black child into this world, but I cannot help but think that their fear of our premature deaths coupled with antiquated fundamentalist Christian beliefs led them to repress us in ways that white people, just given their proximity and access to us, couldn't. So my brother and I grew up not hating our parents but hating the things that were taught to them. Hating the ways those teachings maligned us, isolated us, and made us insecure of the multiplicity of ways we could identify ourselves, whether internally or aesthetically. Getting older required me learning how to pushback subtly.
I grew up in the Houston heat but because of my dainty legs, often adorned with the socks that my dad thought too feminine, I didn't wear shorts above the knee until a little over a year ago. I used to hold so much anger and shame for the way I looked, almost as much as the rage I held for the ways I was raised. I saw other families hug and kiss. We didn't really do that here. I saw other families tell their loved ones that they were so loved at every goodbye. That wasn't our jam. But after a while, I couldn't let it eat at me anymore. And I started to revolt in my own ways — more than just wearing ankle socks, drinking, and smoking (which I totally did), but by hugging my father and mother, telling them that I love them. I've come to grips with the notion that my parents had a hard time getting to know me because I don't line up with the ways in which they categorize the world. Maybe that will change as we continuously grow more into who we each are, but I've learned to keep a lot of the deep compassion I've grown for myself in a secret well. I dim my light a bit when we share a room. It's a necessary compromise; all parties entrenched in our ways. But I'm fine with this armistice because there is some kind of love there. And I hang on to it and guard it with all the armor I've built up over the years.
Steven Universe and the many lives it affects — both old and young — made me think a lot about what kids deserve. But it also pushed me to acknowledge the things our parents aren't equipped to give. And after a while, that's okay, because if we're lucky to live long enough, the family we choose can fill in those gaps of love, knowledge, and appreciation that were left in their wake. They become the best dance partners, breaking out of a socially contrived choreography. They free us. Perhaps they even teach us a little about the ways we receive love from ourselves as well. Over the years, Steven learns that he can just be a kid, just be himself even if others don't understand parts or the whole. And that that's enough. He's a hero fending off the insecurity baked into the hero complex with compassion as his giant pink shield. And he's won this round. As gorgeous and meaningful as it is, Steven Universe still finds its most powerful moments in the humanity of its song. And to close out the season, it leaves us with all the self-affirming power we'd need to push on and through. It's our own private revolt:
I don't need you to respect me, I respect me
I don't need you to love me, I love me
But I want you to know you can know me, if you change your mind
This week, TV Guide is exploring television's relationship with sex, puberty, and everything in between. As part of Sex Ed Week, we're examining how Shrill provides a much-needed, body-positive representation of sex, the story behind a cult classic Lifetime movie, and how Netflix is teaching immigrant parents empathy for their queer kids. You can check out all our Sex Ed Week content here.