‘Steven Universe,’ ‘Clarence,’ and the New Face of the Cartoon Family

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We’ve turned a corner in my house; my 10-year-old son and his 6-year-old little sister are now introducing me to their favorite media. Oh how times have changed!

As I enter my second year as a cord-cutter, I’m beginning to realize that, despite the wealth of material available via free and low-cost streaming services and online portals, I still miss things. Thankfully I have my kids to help me find interesting shows I’d otherwise overlook. The latest examples are also a pair of Cartoon Network properties that recently made their DVD debuts.

I knew Steven Universe more by name–and the requisite handful of Tumblr gifs–than anything else, but when a copy of the Steven Universe: Gem Glow DVD arrived on my doorstep I was a little perplexed. My daughter, on the other hand, was ecstatic.

“Look, dad,” she said, flipping the case over in her hand, “it has the one where he has cat fingers!”

Yes, alongside the aforementioned “Cat Fingers,” this collection includes episodes like “Laser Light Cannon,” “Tiger Millionaire,” and “Rose’s Room”–there are a dozen in all, plus the original pilot as a bonus–that quickly got me up to speed with the Steven Universe… universe. Steven, the son of magical guardian Rose Quartz, lives in Beach City alongside his mother’s teammates, the Crystal Gems. It’s easy to pick a favorite Gem, between the stern Garnet (voiced by UK singer-songwriter Estelle), the reserved Pearl, and hot-tempered Amethyst. (For the record, I am solidly Team Amethyst.) Still, the strength of the show doesn’t always rest on the outlandish superheroics of its principal cast.

Despite its handful of surreal denizens and near-constant state of peril, Beach City isn’t your typical cartoon backdrop. Just as Steven Universe casts women in what would usually be male roles, those of protectors/teachers, it does so within an environment that often includes background characters that similarly deviate from the expected norm. Beach City is a land inhabited not only by our titular hero–the brown-haired, fair-skinned Steven–but by a much more realistic blend of citizens including immigrant families, people of color, and even representations of socio-economic stratification.

One example of the latter is Steven’s on father, Greg, a washed-up musician who lives in a van next to the car wash he operates. While I initially prepared myself for another played-out example of the stereotypical lazy, clueless father, I instead found the relationship between Steven and Greg Universe to be perfectly touching. Rose Quartz sacrificed her physical form to give birth, and that loss is an integral part of their father-son dynamic. So, it seems, is their peculiar living arrangement. Steven lives with the Gems because Greg understands that he’s unable to help his son master his supernatural gifts, but while he may be the charge of Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst, his dad still makes every effort to be a part of his life.

Given the large number of us who are single parents, parents of blended households, or participants in any other flavor of non-nuclear family, Steven Universe offers not only engaging, humorous plots with larger-than-life characters, but also a little valuable unorthodox representation.

Similarly, Clarence, a show that was totally unknown to me, represents another atypical cartoon family. Mary Wendell and her live-in boyfriend Chad do their best to parent the affable Clarence. While he is a veritable whirlwind of unbridled enthusiasm, Clarence does have a knack for always focusing on the positive.

Clarence serves as the middle point between his two best friends, the simple (and often destructive) Sumo and the neurotic, cerebral Jeff. A mere couple of episodes into the Clarence: Mystery Piñata collection, the show itself clicked into place.

Imagine the spectrum of animated comedy. On one end is the malicious anarchy of Beavis and Butthead, represented by Sumo. On the other, the deliberate, constructive messages of Phineas and Ferb, as illustrated by Jeff. And in the middle? That’s where you find Clarence as, well, Clarence.

The DVD opens with “Fun Dungeon Face Off,” wherein Clarence takes Jeff’s fries hostage–at a Teddy Roosevelt-themed restaurant, no less–in an attempt to trick his friend into having fun. Across that episode as well as many others (“Zoo,” “Clarence’s Millions,” “Slumber Party”), Clarence proves himself a far from infallible protagonist, but never manages to lose his lovable appeal.

You see, even when Clarence breaks his friend’s new toy, he does so without anger or malice. He may be short-sided, even thoughtless at times, and is surely a slave to his whims, but what he truly desires is to spread happiness to those around him–even his bully, Belson.

Clarence is chunky. He has a pronounced speech impediment. He often doesn’t see, or simply can’t comprehend, the finer details of the goings-on in his world. And yet he doesn’t let failure, or mockery, or even the sting of disappointment get him down.

If shows like Steven Universe and Clarence signify the move toward a wider, more varied (not to mention more contemporary) world by representing differing ethnicities and family structures, then surely Steven and Clarence embody a new breed of cartoon hero. They may not be powerful, or even all that dependable, but they persevere by simply being true to who they are.

Review materials provided by: Cartoon Network

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