On Failure in Steven Universe

Steven Universe — the character — fails sometimes, but always learns from it and improves himself. That’s not the kind of failure I want to talk about. I find it really fascinating that the show has a character who would be labeled “a failure” in any other story and not only are they not the butt of jokes, they’re one of the most supportive, well-balanced characters. Let’s talk about Greg.

Bonus, that’s my name! Woo!

So, yeah. Greg gave up what could have been a promising career — I mean, we only see him play to an empty beach, but his manager was a parasite and he’s really skilled both musically and technically — to stay in a boring town and be with someone he loved. He’s in a sleeveless undershirt all the time, he sleeps in his van, he runs s tiny car wash no one seems to use… he’s got every marker of the loser next-door neighbor on typical American TV. I mean, throw a rock into Cartoon Network’s stable of other shows, and you’ll hit something that has this guy as a loser or the douchebag or the weirdo.

But Greg is the loving father who’s stable, caring, fun, and honestly loving. He’s the “mom” in stereotypical American fiction. This actually has a lot to do with the show’s core thesis.

Forgive me for the personal digression here, but let me tell you why this matters to me so much. I’m a teacher, a college teacher specifically. I have a doctorate and a shitty part time teaching job — like nearly everyone else. That is, nearly 75% of college courses in America are taught by adjuncts: part timers with no benefits, professional support, or anything else. I can’t go to conferences, for instance, because the rates ballooned with a captive audience so I can’t afford it out of pocket.

Why am I telling you this? Well, college teaching is also very competitive for some reason. Not how there are more applicants than jobs, that makes sense. But the whole system seems more like it should be in a cold-hearted corporate system — meanwhile, lots of corporate job interviews would be field trips compared to the “campus visit,” in which what food you eat, how much you drink (and “no drinks” is usually not the right answer, so have fun gauging how many is enough after one), and whether you’re married can all tank your prospects. So I’m in a really competitive field with a clear “win” condition — the tenure-track, full-time job with influence and wide publications.

And I don’t want most of that. I mean, publications, yeah, I submit plenty of stuff. But I don’t necessarily want the prestige and influence that tenure-track jobs supposedly bestow on people. But if I don’t go for those, there’s not really any security or safety. There’s a lot of temptation to pull a Greg, to just chuck everything and stay somewhere fun with family and friends.

But I won’t be able to teach that way. Or rather, I’ll be pulling a Greg anyway, and the entire culture of my career tells me that’s failure.

See where this is going? I don’t like that I teach part-time. I’d like to teach full-time. But I’d like to teach where I choose — another assumption of my career is I’ll move anywhere for a better job. Choosing to stay where I am is similar to staying in Beach City… except I don’t necessarily have the car wash to fall back on.

There’s one issue I have with the show, born out of my personal experience. Steven “fails.” Greg “fails.” So do the gems. But with all the magic and so on, there are few consequences for it. The gems don’t even need to eat. I still wonder to this day where they’re getting money for pizza and all the groceries in the fridge. So I find it remarkable and lovely that the show gives us role models who aren’t in traditionally successful roles — but it’s difficult to see myself in them (which, granted, isn’t a requirement; it would just be a comfort).

Now, what does all this have to do with the show’s thesis? Well, I’m sure it’s not a big surprise that Steven’s thing is protecting people, not winning fights. Like Grant Morrison’s Superman, he doesn’t want to beat you up, he wants to convince you not to fight and protect everyone else until he does it. That makes sense in an organic way from the show’s character development because Greg left his chance of “winning” to build something with a loved one. That very loved one gave up running a group and her very life to make her son. The gems all gave up security and safety in the gem empire — listen to Peridot yell at them in season two to see all the ways they “failed” in their own culture. They’re counter-culturists, sexual deviants, and other “failures” living on the margins, with very little, just because they’re doing what they want to do.

So the show essentially equates doing what you want with leaving behind the world’s ideas of success. Connie finally has to repudiate her mom’s ideas to her face, because her mom (who I still can’t sympathize with, sorry) wants Connie to succeed. Greg, on the other hand, wants Steven to be happy.

I was lucky enough to have parents like Greg. But the rest of the world is still really loud.

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