Steven Universe and the Autistic Alien

Like many people, I love Cartoon Network’s hit show Steven Universe. 

Why I Fell In Love With The Brilliant Steven Universe, And You Will Too

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.

Your Fave is Autistic Part 2: Raven

 Note: This is referring entirely to the animated early 2000s Teen Titans TV series.

The two characters I relate to in this show the most are Starfire and Raven. Starfire is very energetic, passionate and expressive, can be very affectionate, but doesn’t take negativity very well and won’t take anyone’s crap. She has trouble with social cues and interactions but is very loyal to her friends. While I can see myself in her a lot,  I’m not quick to label Starfire as autistic or otherwise neurodivergent what with her being an alien (what could be neurodivergent to humans could be totally neurotypical to her people, plus the show plays her as being more of a foreigner rather than someone with a disorder). That said, I relate to Raven because the way I see it, Raven is almost certainly autistic.

For starters, she displays a lot of characteristics common in people with Asperger’s Syndrome (a term that is contested within the autistic community, but known by most people as a specific brand of autism). She loves to read and is very intelligent, she prefers to keep to herself, isn’t very talkative, doesn’t like it when people are too loud or are touching her, is often very blunt and up-front with people, and has a rather monotonous voice and limited facial expressions. There’s also a scene where she says “I’m not creepy, just different”. She can be sarcastic, and while some autistic people (like myself) have trouble with sarcasm, others do not, so there’s that.

But one thing that I think is a heavy indicator of her being autistic is the fact that she NEEDS to meditate and keep her emotions (and possibly her stimming) under control.

In the show, if Raven gets too emotional (especially too angry), she becomes a bit more…demonic.

Contrary to popular belief, autistic people can be VERY emotional and empathetic. In fact, it’s pretty common for autistic people to have meltdowns in very emotional situations. Lots of autistic people (myself included) can be prone to hyperempathy, where the suffering of people we don’t even personally know can get beneath our skin. And this can easily be seen as the case for Raven. For context, Raven is the daughter of an evil demon and is destined to free him from, well, Hell, so whenever she gets too upset or angry she runs the risk of losing to him. So she has to meditate and keep her emotions carefully regulated (and as the episode “Nevermore” shows us, her emotions are VERY powerful). This could also possibly be seen as a way to regulate her stims as well (since stimming can cause autistic people to become ecstatic in addition to relieved), but your mileage may vary there, as she might have other, more subtle ways of stimming as well.

Thankfully in season five she has her father banished for good, and we see her slowly start to let her more empathetic and emotional side shine. Unfortunately, the show ended before we could see her truly access the full range of them or find a new way to stim (to be fair, season five was very focused on a continuing plotline, and she only really had one episode for character development; most of the season was focused on Beast Boy and meeting new Titans). But from what we do see, it’s clear that Raven is moving on from the abuse and limits.

On a side note, a part of me feels like maybe Beast Boy is autistic. Beast Boy is very insecure, latching onto people, and exhibits pretty much every symptom of combined ADHD and autism is a very common comorbidity with it. And Beast Boy always always ALWAYS reaches out to Raven the most. There are times when they have very special bonding moments too. I think it’s possible that they’re on two opposite ends of the autism spectrum and have trouble properly communicating with each other, but when they CAN, it’s a great experience for both of them. I could be biased since I’m a sucker for their relationship, but it’s still nice to think of two neurodivergents bonding in any way.

Raven is one of my favourite characters of all time. To me, she is an example of a neurodivergent-coded character done right, and is truly empowering and relatable. Be sure to check out the show (if you can, pay for it) and see for yourself!

Your Fave is Autistic Part 1: Elsa

Or: Yet ANOTHER Interpretation of Frozen

WARNING: I don’t like Frozen. At all. This article is going to contain some criticism of it. If you absolutely, positively LOVE Frozen and can’t bear to hear anything negative said about it, please don’t read. Feedback is appreciated, but hateful/ableist comments will not be approved. 

For one reason or another, Frozen became a worldwide phenomenon, both in the very best and very worst sense of the word. So even though I wasn’t really excited for it, I decided to see it while it was still out in theaters to get my own opinion of it after reading all sorts of positive and negative opinions.

My thoughts?

Not empowering or feminist. Olaf is cringe-worthy. Hans makes no sense as a villain. The story is not that spectacular. Most of the songs are kind of boring. BUT Elsa really struck a personal cord with me. Throughout the whole thing, I couldn’t help  but think to myself, “holy shit, this is me. I totally relate to this woman”.

Ultimately I’m not alone. Lots of people, especially mentally ill, LGBT+, and disabled people identify with her a lot. They can easily see themselves in her place. At the same time, though, a lot of people were wondering who EXACTLY Elsa was supposed to represent.

Jennifer Lee, the film’s writer and co-director, said that her body language was ‘definitely intentional to show anxiety and depression’.  John Lasseter, the film’s executive producer, said that Elsa was changed from a villain to a hero in part because of his diabetic son.

This is a little confusing. Is Elsa supposed to be a person with diabetes, anxiety, AND depression? Was she originally just meant to be a metaphor for diabetes and Jennifer Lee added in the anxiety and depression? Or is she meant to be none of the above, and was merely INSPIRED by people with these disorders?

I guess, ultimately, Elsa is meant to inspire people of all sorts of disabilities, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. So I suppose it’s fair that I have my own interpretation of the film. While I’m not going to confirm or dispute the anxiety and depression part (I have anxiety and have had bouts of depression), I will say this: as I watched the movie (and whenever I watch snippets of the movie with Elsa), I read Elsa as being autistic.

For starters, Elsa’s ice powers can very easily be read as a metaphor for stimming and other behaviours common for autistic people. And when Elsa is shown to be locked away and forced to suppress her powers and be told that she’s ‘dangerous’ and not ‘normal’ can easily be seen as a form of the very abusive anti-autistic Applied Behaviour Analsyis. Fast forward and now Elsa is still reeling from not getting any support for her autism and getting no proper social skills and being told she’s not allowed to express herself. You have a woman who is told ‘conceal, don’t feel, don’t let it show’ and repeats it to herself, wears gloves, and acts very stiff around her sister and pushes her away, not knowing how to properly interact with her.

Then, her powers are revealed and she becomes overwhelmed, and retreats from the situation/shuts out. She hides away to a quiet place where nobody else is around. And suddenly, she is able to revel in her powers. In other words…she is finally able to stim.

Look at this screenshot:

only good scene in Frozen

This is the best scene in the movie. It shows how truly happy she is to just fully express herself without fear of judgement and discipline.

Unfortunately, Elsa’s character after this point isn’t very consistent. She fluctuates between wanting to be free and on her own, wanting to protect her kingdom/thinking she’s too dangerous, having good control of her powers to not knowing how to use them, and from being only mildly concerned to overly concerned for her sister’s wellbeing (she accidentally freezes Anna’s heart, looks shocked but doesn’t try to help, chases her out with an ice monster…and then in the third act is devastated when she thinks she’s killed her. Huh?). I think the BEST interpretation is that she’s just so broken from all those years of isolation and abuse that her senses of right and wrong and how to react properly are moot. The worst interpretation is that, since she was indeed supposed to be the villain in the original draft and they changed the story late into production, remnants of her more evil side found its way back into the story.

What really upsets me most is the ending. At the end of the story, she’s pretty much dragged home against her will, is encouraged to stay home in the name of love, and while she is accepted by her citizens, she’s only really shown to be allowed to do the most benign, lackluster things with her ice powers. I really think she should have stayed in the ice palace, let a support team come visit her to help her get a better grip on her powers and her wellbeing, have friends and family visit, and let Anna be the queen. The movie demonstrates that while she certainly LOOKS the part of the queen, she doesn’t really ACT or is ready for the ROLE of the queen.

The reason why I don’t like this movie is because you have a character that I definitely see myself in and isn’t really written to her fullest potential. I would have LOVED to see Elsa as the hero of the story, gaining lots of friends and support, saving her kingdom and her sister, and going through a lot of character development. The most we get is when, at the climax, she’s like ‘love, that’s it!’ and unfreezes her kingdom.

That said, part of me will still like Elsa and I would love to see her explored more and allowed to develop and grow.

That was my first entry in the “Your Fave is Autistic” series! Hope you enjoyed! The other entries will be more positive and longer. 

Going to Start A Series

In honour of Autism Awareness Acceptance Month, I’m going to start a “Your Fave is Autistic” series. It’s where I’ll take different characters from different shows/movies and explain how I feel that they are autistic/heavily coded to be autistic. I will probably not be finished by this month (it will likely be an ongoing series that will last quite awhile, but hey, I get to spread autism love all year long!) but I want to at least START now.

Teen Titans and the Troublesome Movie

In addition to being a huge fan of Disney, I am also a huge fan of the TV series Teen Titans. In fact, it is my favourite show of all time. It has great, well-developed, lovable characters, exciting action, interesting stories, dynamic animation and is overall very well written and fun. It was also a huge hit during its prime in the early 2000s, with 2 million viewers and a devoted fanbase. So of course, a movie would be inevitable.

After five seasons of waiting, fans of the hit show Teen Titans were finally granted their own feature length film, Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo. The reactions were…mixed, at best. As for how I personally felt, while I wouldn’t go as far as to call this film total crap, there are a lot of flaws in the movie that range from mildly annoying to seriously problematic.

Continue reading “Teen Titans and the Troublesome Movie”

Alice in Bluntland.

Walt Disney has lent his hand in the creation of many animated movies. But one of those creations that he absolutely hated was Alice in Wonderland. After a troubled production history, with many of the animators losing their productivity and spirits with it (they felt the story and characters had no heart and soul), Alice in Wonderland was a flop with both British and American moviegoers and lost a lot of money. Walt’s response? “I think Alice got what she deserved. I never wanted to make it in the first place, but everybody said I should. I tried to introduce a little sentiment by getting Alice involved with the White Knight, but they said we couldn’t tamper with a classic. So we just kept moving at a circus pace.” (From Disney’s Art and Animation by Bob Thomas, page 101)

And honestly? I can’t blame him. This film is unpleasant.

Now I can’t really comment on the book as I have never truly read it (just the abridged versions of it) so it might contain some nuances and commentary that I don’t know. If THIS is to be believed, apparently Lewis wrote it to point out how absurd and ridiculous math is, and how it’s basically nonsense. But I do know that all the subsequent adaptations and general theme of the Alice in Wonderland mythos is to not make sense, to be an adventure into childlike nonsense, look at things from a sillier point of view, all that jazz.

I find that stuff really ridiculous and boring. Just because it’s random and unconventional doesn’t mean it’s artsy or good. Even if it is supposed to be a satire, it doesn’t HAVE to be presented in a way that’s so off the wall to the point where most of it doesn’t make sense.

But I think most people like that. I think they like how it’s basically a high in the form of a children’s book. I think people kind of admire the idea of someone being so stoned out of their mind they created something so weird and imaginative, and the Disney product sort of retains that while looking good.

While the visuals are nice and the Queen of Hearts is a lot of fun, that’s not enough to draw me in. The film is a dense, inane story where literally NOTHING HAPPENS, other than that Alice gets antagonized by weird, random, and even creepy creatures until she essentially gets scared and irritated into realizing that her childlike sense of wonder is, well, inappropriate. There’s no real plot or character development, nor is there a reason why I’m supposed to like the world we’re in, since most of the characters are assholes.

What’s worse is that in the end, it all turns out to be what’s supposed to be a dream, and there’s no real moral at the end. If there is a moral, I don’t get it, nor do I care.

I know I’m probably going to get flack for this, but this is one of the few Disney movies that I genuinely don’t like. I get it. It looks pretty and is a nice little trip into nonsense. But I need substance with my style.

I also absolutely hate the live action remake of this movie too. Even though it has some substance to it, it’s a very generic form of substance (ho hum, a chosen one saving a promised land to restore the rightful ruler, yeah yeah), and the visuals overkill it with conspicuous CGI. And I STILL don’t like the world or characters.

If you like it, that’s entirely within your right. More power to you. But for me, it just feels like a really bad high, one that I never want to experience ever again.