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.
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.
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).
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.
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.