There is a lot of advice out there of what to do when you’re depressed. A lot of it is very good advice. Go on a run! Eat healthy food! Take a shower! Clean your room! If you can do that, congratulations on making the steps towards building your best life.
But I don’t have “just force yourself to go for a run!” depression. I have lie in bed, fetal position, don’t respond to text messages, unwashed sheets and unwashed hair, avoid the cashier’s glance at CVS while you check out with another pint of ice cream and pillowcase-sized bag bite-sized Twizzlers, refresh Twitter every four seconds while your eyes glaze over and the boredom is eating your brain and your brain is fantasizing escapes from your body depression. I cannot just force myself to go for a run. And so I watch Steven Universe.
If you’ve never watched it, Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar, is the first program from a female show-runner at Cartoon Network, about a boy named Steven Universe who lives with three immortal alien creatures in female form who are called the Crystal Gems. Steven’s mother, the leader of the Crystal Gems, died to bring Steven into existence, and so throughout the series he learns to harness the powers she gave him as the first half-human, half-gem hybrid.
I realize the cliff-notes version sounds a bit science fiction. In reality, the show is closer to musical sitcom, the exuberant fairy tale little sister of Bob’s Burgers in which the heart of every episode is a family that, above all, loves each other. And at eleven-minutes each, the storylines are digestible even when up against the crawling-out-of-my-skin impatient distractedness of my depression.
Maybe that’s why I’ve fallen in love with Steven Universe when I lost interest in Cartoon Network’s other enormously popular fantasy animated show with an adolescent boy for a lead: Adventure Time, which Sugar wrote for before creating SU. Steven Universe takes place on earth, and its problems are human problems: guilt, insecurity, jealousy.
Abstract, invented, mythical concepts, like gems “fusing” together into one being is applied masterfully as metaphor, in turn, for love (Garnet), non-binary gender identities (Stevonnie), and, in the case of complicated, painful forced union of Lapis and Jasper into Malachite, the trauma of abusive relationships.
At times, Steven or Amethyst, or even Steven’s father Greg might feel like a burden to those around them. But their fears are always met with the unconditional love and support of those whom they would unconditionally love and support back.
Large as the universe is, there is nothing intimidating about it. It is a children’s show. Although the fandom is notoriously prickly and surprisingly prone to unified bullying for devotees of a TV program that praises kindness and always giving the benefit of the doubt (one fan attempted suicide after others attacked one of her drawings of a character for being too skinny; one of the show’s artists quit Twitter due to harassment over a drawing that some saw as promoting a relationship among characters they didn’t support) the show itself is as nonjudgmental as its open-hearted protagonist. It allows you to watch—glassy-eyed and self-loathing—without asking anything in return.
Body loathing is an almost ritualized phase of my depression. At some point, naked and dusted with crumbs, in stained sheets, I’ll look down at my belly and knead it like white bread, or else stare at a scale that reads 151 pounds and briefly wonder whether amputation might be a viable option to get that number down to 130. Efforts towards weight loss operate in my brain like a Chinese finger trap: the more desperately I struggle to escape feeling too heavy for my body, the tighter my old habits of self-soothing constrict around me.
In its three female main characters, Steven Universe represents three wildly distinct body types: tall and willowy, short and pudgy, and tall and strong. Steven himself is round and soft, a rare distinction among cartoon characters where a thigh gap seems to be a natural side effect of animation.
And they all deserve love. Friendships never hinge on weight—no one ever gives dirty glances or mutters under their breath. Individuals are judged based on their kindness and bravery, and even then, everyone always gets a second chance.
Maybe that’s what’s most appealing to me when I watch Steven Universe: Steven’s ability to accept the strangeness and idiosyncrasies of the secondary character—the humans in Beach City—and extend friendship not as a reward but as a baseline for human interaction. I am not one for voicing insecurities or asking for help. My mom likes to tell a story about me as a toddler in which I trekked all the way down to the basement, got a small stool and brought it up two flights of stairs to bring to my bathroom to reach something outside the grasp of my underdeveloped limbs. My self-sufficiency is a trait I pride myself on, but it’s also a tremendous weakness when I isolate myself like an animal finding a quiet place to die.
When the characters (even the immortal alien character) deal with those human problems of guilt, insecurity, and jealousy, they can vocalize them to each other, communicating—even if it’s usually at the end of an episode. At times, Steven or Amethyst, or even Steven’s father Greg might feel like a burden to those around them. But their fears are always met with the unconditional love and support of those whom they would unconditionally love and support back. Even cruelty (like from a traumatized and angry Lapis, or from Lars) can be forgiven, relationships returning like a stretched rubber band, back to a place of community.
Depression makes me cruel sometimes. It makes me lonely and lazy and useless for stretches of time. But I can make it through eleven-minute intervals, distracted by a brilliant world in which feelings are articulated, and accepted.