Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Greg Universe Is the Dad We Need


Steven Universe is the kind of show that it's so easy to go on and on and on about, picking apart seemingly minor plot points, exulting in really solid character development, and even checking backgrounds to see if there's some information that might be relevant later on because, you know what, the show actually stands up to that level of scrutiny. But in all of our efforts to deeply and meaningfully dissect this show, I think it's also worth taking a second to talk about the stuff that's obvious and surface level, because that's pretty gosh darn good too.

In this case, I'm referring to Greg Universe, a dad who isn't necessarily the best father in the world or even the best father in Beach City*, but who is a sterling example of how to make a father character who is human and full of faults but still fundamentally good and nurturing and loving, all presented in a way that kids can understand. Steven Universe presents Greg as a dad who really doesn't know what he's doing most of the time but so clearly wants to do the best thing for Steven. For kids watching the show, it presents the idea that parents are not magically infallible, but that their fallibility doesn't make them any less valuable or important.

And, well, I approve of that. I think that's a valuable lesson for children to learn. We all remember becoming aware that our parents weren't actually right all the time, and for a lot of kids that's a shattering moment. The realization that these human beings we've put all of our trust and hope in are no more perfect than the rest of us can be hard to swallow. Or, in other cases, it's hard to even remember a time when you could respect your parents, when you did trust their judgment. 

Either way, part of growing up is understanding that your parents, and every other adult, are actually just, to put it in Dylan Moran's words, "a tall child holding a beer, having a conversation you don't understand."

This idea, that your parents are people too, is no small part of the main arc of the show on Steven Universe. And while the show focuses more on the Crystal Gems and their battle with Homeworld, for Steven himself, his relationship with Greg is just as important as it changes and morphs through the seasons.

For those of you who're pretty lost now, though, here's what I'm talking about: Steven Universe is a Cartoon Network children's show created and produced by Rebecca Sugar. It follows the titular character, Steven Universe (Zach Callison), a happy, fun-loving boy who just so happens to be half-human and half-alien. His father, Greg (Tom Scharpling), is obviously as human as it gets, but Steven's mother, Rose Quartz (Susan Egan), was part of the immortal alien race known as the "gems". There's a lot of history and technicality in the backstory here, but it doesn't matter and you won't care about it unless you actually watch the show, so we'll leave it at that.

Steven is raised partly by his dad, but mostly by the Crystal Gems, three Gems who chose to live on Earth and protect it and who were very close with his mother. The Gems - Garnet (Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), and Pearl (Deedee Magno) - take care of Steven as best they can, training him to be a Crystal Gem and to use his powers, but also making sure to give him time to be a little boy.

The show, which is divided into eleven minute little episodes, can vary wildly in tone and theme. Some episodes deal with stories as silly as Steven desperately wanting everyone to eat breakfast together while others deal with the Gem's very real sorrow and pain that Rose is not with them anymore and Steven's wondering if everyone might not be happier if he weren't around. Like I said, it's a show that is at times wacky and hilarious and at others genuinely heart-wrenching. So, a solid children's show.

The majority of plots, though, deal with the Crystal Gems protecting Earth from all kinds of alien monsters and invaders. The Gems are always reacting to various threats and fighting to keep the planet safe, and sometimes Steven helps but other times they send him off to Greg to stay safe or let him play with his friend Connie (Grace Rolek) while they save the day.

So that's what the show is about. How is this a really compelling story about fatherhood? Well, what makes Steven Universe unique (aside from just about everything) is how the story deals with Greg Universe. Instead of writing him out entirely - it would be easy to paint him as some lowlife who didn't stick around or to kill him off or just not show him very often - and instead of making him some kind of perfect house-husband and impeccable father figure, the show chooses to make Greg what he is: a kind of messy, kind of messed up dude who lives in his van and absolutely adores his son.

That's what's so cool about Greg Universe. He's not out of the picture, but he's also not some pod person ideal of what a father should be. He's a dad like what most us actually get: some guy who has to figure out how to deal with this small person he helped make. Greg lives in Beach City so that he can be close to Steven, but has deferred to the Gems when it comes to actually raising him. Greg knows enough to understand that he doesn't know how to train Steven as a Crystal Gem, so he is content to father Steven as best he can in human stuff.

Human stuff, as far as Greg is concerned at least, means teaching Steven about music and guitars and singing, as well as cheesy television shows, pizza, and how it's okay to be yourself even when yourself is kind of a goof. While other shows might paint Greg as a failure or a bad father, Steven Universe never does that. Sure, Greg is unconventional. He owns and operates a car wash but seems to choose to live in his van and keep his stuff in storage. He's an amazing musician, but he's made the decision not to go off and pursue music but to stay in Beach City to be close to Steven.

And far from being ashamed of his dad or wishing his father were thinner or cooler or less of a weirdo, Steven absolutely adores his father. He thinks Greg is the coolest person in the world. Whether Greg is wearing a sweater covered in cherries or flaunting his righteous farmer's tan or picking Steven up and tickling him or whatever, Steven always thinks that Greg is the coolest dad anyone could ever want.

Again, though, what makes this a compelling illustration of fatherhood isn't so much the ways that Greg is a great dad - even if those ways are pleasantly unusual and represent a more diverse idea of fatherhood than what we normally see - but the ways that the show allows us to see Greg as a human being as well as a father. In other words, what makes Steven Universe great is all the time when Greg isn't just a happy, fun, silly dad.

Like the time that Greg gets hurt in the process of helping the Gems and has to live with them for a while until his van is fixed and his leg heals. Eventually Steven realizes that his father has been lying about his injury - which had caused Steven to question his healing powers - because he misses Steven and wanted to spend more time with him. It's a hard scene to watch because there's so much going on. Steven is heartbroken to see his faith in his father being broken because his dad lied, but as an audience it's painful to realize that Greg misses Steven that much and would do something so extreme to be a part of his son's daily life. 

Or there's the episode where Greg and Amethyst get caught up in watching episodes of "Lil' Butler", their favorite terrible sitcom, and Greg ends up completely neglecting Steven for a while. He even forgets to go watch the fireworks with Steven, a tradition that Steven considers sacred. 

When Steven goes off to find them, he's devastated to walk in on a knock-down drag-out fight between the two of them, the kind of fight that reminds any kid that their parents are real people who had lives before their children. It's a scene that reminds all of us watching how much history Greg has with the Gems and it's a scene that make any kid wonder just who their parents were before they came around.

Or how about the time that Greg got so worried about Steven getting hurt that he was afraid to tell anyone the truth about how he fights aliens. Again, it's not Greg's fault for freaking out - Steven is his son and he's allowed to be protective - but it's a compelling look at how relationships are more complicated than we tend to assume. Or the time that Greg is terrified Pearl will take Steven into space with her and he'll be dead of old age before they get back. Or the time that Greg realizes Steven is uncomfortable having him around Connie's parents, because they're so respectable and upper-middle class.

There are a lot of moments that remind us that Greg Universe, for all he's a really great dad, is also a human being whose feelings don't always fit with what Steven wants them to. And, for all that this creates great drama and can be hard to watch, I think this is a really valuable lesson for the children watching Steven Universe to learn. The adults too.

It's so easy for us to be the centers of our own little worlds. It's so easy to fall into the habit of assuming everyone around you is there because you need them to be there and that they're basically all NPCs to your Player Character. It's incredibly easy to get into that habit, but very bad to stay there. Treating people like they're the background or supporting characters allows you to ignore their feelings, their needs, and their lives. It's especially easy for kids to do this with family members, just sort of blissfully assuming that these human beings exist all for them.

The reality, though, is that not even the most well-intentioned parent can always be there for their child, and actually that attitude is rather dangerous. "Living for" your children is much more likely to make them grow up to be shitty people, convinced that the world revolves around them. It also puts phenomenal pressure on the children to make your sacrifices worth it. When you make a child the center of your world, you tell them that they have to succeed and be okay or else your world has nothing holding it together. And that's a hard concept for a kid to deal with.

So the value of Greg's role in Steven Universe is to gently remind kids that parents are people too. Greg is Steven's father and he clearly loves him enough to sacrifice a potentially lucrative music career. But he's still his own person. Greg has feelings and thoughts and opinions that Steven doesn't understand or agree with. None of that makes Greg a bad dad, and the best episodes are the ones where we see Steven come to that conclusion. 

For kids watching, Steven's interaction with Greg, and with the Gems, allows them to consider the idea that their parents too have lives and relationships they might not know about. It gives children a safe space to consider how human their parents actually are, and a softer cushion for the realization that your parents might actually be screwed up human beings and that's okay.

The alternative - media that insists on the perpetual right-ness of parents and how they're infallible and perfect - is way worse for children developmentally, because it reinforces the idea that any aberration from normal parental behavior is to be feared and hated. It creates this ideal of what a parent should be and removes us from the concept that parents are just tall children trying to do the best they can (or they should be).

I like Greg Universe. I'm sure that if I knew him I'd be slightly more annoyed with him all the time, because that's just who I am, but I like him as a character. He's not the dad we normally get to see, but that doesn't mean he's not a really important character. Greg Universe might not be the dad we all wanted growing up, but he's the dad we need to see now. For kids he's a reminder that your parents are human. And for parents he's a reminder that it's okay to let your kid see you vulnerable once in a while.

And he did save the world that one time with his mad audio-visual skills.


*That one is debatable as Beach City is home to a lot of questionable fathers. 

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