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Kids shows are weird. Many of the contemporary kids programs I’ve come across (especially stuff geared towards toddlers on streaming services) seem to follow a similar pattern:

  • A group of main characters connected by either proximity or vocation.” No parents, nor guardians really. Just elders who are expert in their field
  • Characters have clearly defined social roles (e.g. a train responsible for moving freight)
  • Narratives revolve around characters either learning to fulfill their roles or failing to do so, and then realizing that others suffer when they don’t meet their responsibilities

Are these Neo-Capitalist fairy tales?

I just saw that the series finale to Adventure Time is airing this evening (or perhaps already has aired). I’m a few seasons behind at this point, but am sad to see the show come to a close, but also glad it had such a great run. Watching the show was weirdly transformative for me while in school. I’m excited to be able to share it with my son one day, and wicked inspired by the sea-change the show helped prompt in animation.

I think I enjoy Batman: The Animated Series for the same reason many folks enjoy fine pens, nice watches, and Apple products. I find watching BTAS an amazing experience not necessarily because of the narrative (e.g. usefulness?”), but because of the craftsmanship and attention to detail evident in the animation, voice acting, and sound design. The show represents a sea-change in the type of storytelling cartoons could do on network and cable television. I’ve enjoyed spending time on micro.blog and getting to see and learn about the types of things other folks love, and why. The little things that other folks don’t consider important, but to some are pivotal.

In reply to: The hidden heart of Howl’s Moving Castle

In most Miyazaki movies, he resists turning the narrative into a love story. In Howl’s Moving Castle, he resists his own resistance. All of the characters are in love with each other. Instead, they have to learn how to accept love.

Dead Mom

Background art from Steven Universe

Background art from Steven Universe

My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was young; I was so young that I never knew my mother apart from her diagnosis. She and it were, to me, one and the same. She died when I was in the 2nd grade.

Harry Potter, along with many other stories (particularly of the Disney variety), teaches us that parental death, and dealing with it, is one of the first ingredients needed to make a hero. It is the flour to any baguette of heroism. In these stories the death of one’s parent(s) become(s) a gravitational force in the main character’s life — a defining moment — around which the character is then built.

This isn’t to knock Harry Potter nor any other story that includes parental death, but they’re problematic from the point of view of an actual kid with a dead parent.

#expectations

Growing up, even at a young age, I felt that I owed the world a debt because my mother died; I had to right some cosmic imbalance and lead a life that was somehow worth,” or worthy of” her having died. I don’t know where I got it, but I know that the narratives in which I was constantly immersed helped to reinforce it: I was surrounded by role models (characters) who, citing parental death, lead extraordinary, adventurous, and oftentimes selfless lives. Selflessness is a difficult trait to pull off as a 6 - 10 year old upper-middle class Jewish boy in the suburbs of Washington D.C.

#coddled

Despite my mother’s death, I had an amazing childhood; so good in fact, that I’ve wrestled with my fair share of white guilt over it. But that is neither here nor there. An interesting part of my childhood, a part with which I struggled, was not really ever having known my mother. I didn’t struggle with this so much in the I’m missing mommy” fashion, but in the fact that I was fairly consistently surrounded by people (aka adults) who knew my mother a lot better than I ever did — people for whom my mother’s death involved history, and personal narrative — I guess this is to say loss.” Her death involved loss for me, but mostly loss of what could have been, not what was (which is questionable, because how do you lose something you never had?).

This situation, this being surrounded by folks who knew this person to whom you are supposed to be ultimately connected — who is your incipit core — better than you, is a strange one. It is a situation that I never even realized was confusing or potentially traumatic while living through it (I guess I am still sort of living through it).

Credit, Steven Sugar, background artist for Steven Universe

To my mother’s friends and family, my mother was more than a fleeting character; she was a bona fide person; a friend. To me, she was briefly there, and then existent within my life as a nearly mythic character; mythic not in scope, but in her distance from and connection to me. If my life were a book, cartoon, or movie, she’d be a character with whom the audience wouldn’t be able to connect — she would be a force, like the east wind in Greek myth — she would be environmental rather than singular or character-based.

#ILoveCartoons

I love stories, storytelling, writing, and reading. I love comics, cartoons, movies, plays, novels, documentaries. I love once upon a time” when it is used as a temporal coordinate. I love narrative. As such, I’ve ingested a lot of them. Steven Universe is the first that I’ve encountered that completely models what it is like to grow up as a young child with a dead parent whom you never knew without reducing the experience to a mono-mythic hero narrative. It embraces the complexity, and confusion of the situation — all while following a character who may or may not become a hero,” in the classical sense.

Steven Universe is entertaining, whimsical, highly approachable, and complex. It presents a character who, while fitting the bill for the dead parent equals hero narrative, also challenges it. Steven is a direct product of his mother’s death (I’ll call it a death, but it hasn’t been explicitly stated that she is dead, per se); she gave up her physical being in order to bring Steven into the world with her human partner, and Steven’s father, Greg.

The show is just at its start, and I hope far from ending. I’ll be interested to see where Steven goes, and what sort of character he becomes. Most importantly, I’m excited to see if the show continues to play with the tropes of dead parents making heros. Big, or potentially complicated topics aren’t just the stuff of heady fiction. These ideas can be wrestled with in public through all sorts of fiction. I’m excited to see it in Steven Universe.


Originally posted to medium, Sep. 26, 2014.

I’ve decided to repost this now because I finally watched Rouge One, and am working on a follow up post.