Ingrid and I are watching the entire Steven Universe series for the third time, and since we’ve been spending so much talking about it the first two times, I thought I’d blog some of my observations about it. Please note: I’m not writing these Steven Universe posts as a series summary or recap. I’m just writing down some of my observations and reactions (not necessarily coherently), both to the show as a whole and to the individual episodes. These posts will probably make more sense to people who are already watching/ have already watched the show, but I hope they inspire the rest of you to check out the show, as it really is one of the richest and most emotionally intense things I’ve seen on TV. Note: This post may contain spoilers about Steven Universe: the show as a whole, and/or about Episode 5: Frybo.
This is one of the first episodes of Steven Universe that’s emotionally hard to watch.
Steven Universe often touches on how adults and children have a hard time communicating and understanding each other’s priorities. This episode gets into that theme in a more serious way: how adults can have overly high expectations of kids, can put too much pressure on kids, and can pile too much responsibility on kids too early. And it gets into how damaging it can be when fulfilling these high expectations is presented as a requirement for membership in the family.
We see this a bit in the opening scene with Steven and Pearl. When Pearl explains to Steven about the missing gem shard, she does it in a way that he can’t possibly understand or focus on. She gives him complicated explanations of the history of the missing shard, and totally buries the lead — the fact that a gem shard is missing, and that if he finds it, it should be kept away from clothing. (“Oh, geez, she’s really explaining something!”) And later, she gets angry at him for not listening — when it was her responsibility to explain it in a way he could hear.
But we mostly see this theme — and we see it at its most unsettling and heartbreaking — with Peedee.
It breaks my heart when Peedee’s dad calls him Frybo (the name of the anthropomorphic French fry costume Peedee wears to advertise his dad’s fry shop) — instead of calling him Peedee. It breaks my heart when Peedee’s dad looks at his son, with his costume off, and says, “Where’s your face, Frybo?” It breaks my heart when Peedee’s dad tells him, “Being part of the Fryman family means you got to sell fries. And… be my son. Which you are. So — you’re already halfway there. Keep at it, Frybo!”
Because boy freaking howdy, do I get it.
I felt like that growing up. I felt tremendous pressure to excel in school, to be a bookish brainiac genius, and to eventually go into some academic or academic-type field. It wasn’t just that I was worried about disappointing my family. I was worried about not being considered part of the family. Academic book-smarts were very much part of the family identity, and I felt that if I wasn’t an academic bookish brainiac genius, I wouldn’t get to share that identity.
It’s the main reason I changed my name when I was in my twenties. No, Christina is not the last name I was born with. When I started writing professionally, I didn’t want to worry about how my work reflected on the family reputation (especially since I was mostly writing for a lesbian sex magazine). I wanted my writing to just be my own, and to reflect just on me. So I decided to use a pen name. Then I realized that this wasn’t just true for my writing. It was true for my life. I wanted my life to be mine. So instead of taking a pen name, I changed my name. I dropped the family name, and took my middle name as my last name. It was the right choice: I love the name Greta Christina, and feel deeply connected with it. But it was sad that that’s what I had to do to pursue a career, and a life, without worrying about how it reflected on the clan. And I still feel that pressure to this day, when I hear the voice in my head saying that any time not spent working at achieving brilliance is time wasted, or when my disabling perfectionism is getting in the way of doing things I love.
So it breaks my heart when Peedee escapes the Frybo costume and excitedly says to Steven, “Let’s go be kids!” It breaks my heart when they go do fun kid things — but Peedee can’t enjoy it, because he’s still stressing about his too-old-for-him responsibilities, and about his father’s disappointment in him. It breaks my heart when Peedee is in the Frybo costume being pecked at by hungry birds, and he screams at them, “I’m not fries!” He’s screaming it at the birds — but I feel like he’s screaming it at the world.
Ingrid commentary: Ingrid also finds this episode very disturbing.
She finds PeeDee’s speech on the mechanical seahorse very compelling, and very disturbing. “You pick up a job to buy a house, or raise kids, or to — impress your dad. You work away your life, and what does it get you?… You get cash — cash that can’t buy back what the job takes. Not if you rode every seahorse in the world.” She says that he is much too jaded, much too perceptive of adult realities, at much too young an age.
Also, she finds the animated living Frybo very disturbing.
On the brighter side: She loves the bit where Steven and Pearl are talking, and Steven’s pants trot across the screen in the background. She has a soft spot for the visual joke where somebody or something is casually running in the background — especially when it’s the thing the foreground characters are talking about or looking for. (Greta again: This bit totally reminds me of the pale green pants with nobody inside ’em.)
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.