Like many people, I love Cartoon Network’s hit show Steven Universe.
And how could I not? It has beautiful animation, great songs, memorable characters, and INCREDIBLE worldbuilding. In addition to a pretty diverse cast, it also has some of the best representations of LGBT+ characters and relationships on children’s television (take note, Hollywood writers, you don’t have to kill your gays for drama!). It’s arguably one of the great modern animated shows to come out recently, and has amassed a devoted (and deserved) following.
But I have a problem. And it’s fairly major.
It’s this character:
His name is Onion. He is a human character on the show that is clearly not ‘normal’.
Throughout the entire show, Onion is depicted as weird, creepy, annoying, incomprehensible, a trouble maker, and someone that Steven, a character who is all-loving and kind and good, is ambivalent towards. He can’t talk aside of mumbled vocals and has a lot of strange/unconventional/specific interests that freak people out. It’s also worth pointing out that Onion (as you can see in the picture) has no ears, which therefore makes him deformed and very likely deaf (it’s possible for deaf people to understand others through lip reading and gestures rather than just sign language, and give how Onion interacts with others, that’s entirely likely his case). He’s a character with a physical disability and a potential mental disorder.
And how do fans react?
They think he’s autistic. Or in extreme cases, they theorize he’s not even human.
Can you see why I have a problem with that?
Let’s assume he is autistic. This is…not the best way to show autistic kids to allistic kids. There’s a way to show how autistic kids can be different or even weird without depicting them as entirely creepy or even unsympathetic at times (in the one episode where Steven gets to see Onion’s good side when Onion gives him one of his fave toys, it still ends with Onion being creepy and Steven feeling at unease). And what about actual autistic kids or who see this?
Worst still, as of yet there are no main or prominent characters with a deformity or disability and so far the only characters who have been read as mentally ill or autistic are the Gems.
The Gems (the main ones being Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl) are alien characters, and all have been interpreted as being neurodivergent. You can probably look up on your own all the different theories and headcanons on each other their disorders, but to give you some perspective:
- Garnet likes to do things by herself, isn’t very verbal (and talks differently from the other characters and can be monotonous), is very blunt and upfront, always wears shades and doesn’t like it when people take them off, and other, more subtle character tics that autistic people read as autistic traits;
- Pearl is extremely organized and precise, gets very stressed when things are out of order, hates being wrong, can be very literal, and has some lingering issues with her past;
- Amethyst hoards and has serious self image issues (there are a number of interpretations of her having borderline personality disorder that you can check out).
And they’re depicted as complex, three-dimensional, and LIKEABLE characters that we’re meant to root for.
So why is it that the Autistic Alien gets more respect than the Autistic HUMAN?
Do you not see how inherently dehumanizing it is to give your most sympathetic portrayal of an autistic person to an alien? And either not code ANY of your actual human characters as autistic or otherwise neurodivergent, and the only humans who ARE end up not getting any sympathy?
You can probably see why there’s a problem with that.
While I know there are people who view the ENTIRE cast (both Gems and humans alike) as being autistic/neurodivergent/mentally ill, it still remains that Onion is clearly and intentionally coded as not being neurotypical and is DEFINITELY the only character we’ve witnessed so far with a physical deformity/disability. That’s not good.
As you can see, the show has a problem with ableism. It’s a pretty common problem across media, but a serious problem nonetheless. I am not currently physically disabled so I can’t really say if representation for people with such disabilities is getting better, worse, or has remained the same for awhile. I do feel like we are slowly starting to get better at representing people with mental illnesses and disorders, which makes Onion’s treatment more jarring. But even then, it’s still a fact that it’s 2016 and people are STILL depicting disabled people as weird and antagonistic. That’s not right.
I genuinely love this show, which is why I am writing this post. I want it to get better. I want Onion to be able to move on past his role of being the weird and creepy kid. I want to see a diverse range of characters with disabilities and mental disorders, both human and gem (and half gem!) in a way that’s complex and sympathetic. If Steven Universe could do that, it would not only be fantastic, but it could also be an excellent precedent in this time of age for other animated shows to do so as well.
Until then, I’ll still look forward to this show and all it has to offer, but not without a critical mind.