Aaron’s Steven Universe Guide #2: “Laser Light Cannon”

If you are watching Steven Universe for the first time as you’re reading these, you’ll likely notice me assigning meaning and depth to things that you, an initial viewer, might not give a second glance. This episode in particular sets forth a very important philosophical argument that will be relevant to the series time and time again — but it does it very subtly, and couches it in the goofy, childlike tone prevalent in these early Season 1 episodes. As a result, there are definitely moments in this essay where you’ll be like “Dude. . . what are you doing? This is a kids’ show. There’s really not that much to it; what is even happening right now.”

But I assure you, the creators of Steven Universe are playing a very long game, my friend, and appearances can be deceiving. This is gonna be a fun one; let’s get into it.

Synopsis

As Steven and Amethyst are spending an afternoon tooling around on the boardwalk, a menacing orange sphere, which looks like a glaring eye and shines ominously, approaches Beach City from the sky. The Crystal Gems congregate on the beach to brainstorm how to stop it, and Garnet mentions that the only thing powerful enough to destroy the sphere (called a Red Eye) is a light cannon that once belonged to Rose Quartz, Steven’s mother. However, Rose Quartz is gone, along with her cannon. Steven offers to go and see his dad, Greg, to see if he might have the light cannon. The gems, skeptical, stay on the beach to brainstorm other ways to defeat the Red Eye.

Greg lives in a colorful van, parked next to the local car wash. Steven arrives and wakes him up, and Greg emerges from the van in an undershirt and sweatpants, disoriented from his nap. After some delightful and adorable dialogue that establishes their loving father-son relationship, they head to Greg’s storage unit to see if the light cannon might be in there. The storage unit is overstuffed and filled with junk, but after a bit of spelunking Steven locates the light cannon at the very back. Perhaps a tad ungracefully, Steven and Greg use the van to tow the light cannon to the beach — and just in time, as the Red Eye has come close enough to start causing some disastrous gravity anomalies. The group panics when they realize they don’t know how to activate the cannon, but discover on accident that Rose programmed it to only respond to Greg’s old catchphrase: “If every porkchop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hot dogs.” In a beautiful pyrotechnics display, the light cannon destroys the Red Eye, and the day is saved.

Analysis

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This second episode continues the first episode’s work of slowly building the world and laying down backstory – if you were confused at the whereabouts of Steven’s biological parents in “Gem Glow,” here’s your answer. We also get the story of how Greg and Rose met (he was a traveling musician, and when he played a concert in Beach City, Rose was the only one who showed up), as well as our first glimpse of Rose in the form of a framed photo of her and Greg that Steven encounters in the storage unit.

Perhaps most importantly, we get a very brief explanation as to why Rose Quartz no longer exists:

GREG: And we were always together after that. Until she gave up her physical form to have you.

We’re not really sure what this means yet, but again, I enjoy the slow leak of information.

“Laser Light Cannon” also introduces us to Greg, an important and central character throughout the series. Right from the get-go, Greg’s purpose seems to be to upend some of our preconceived notions about class, wealth, and success. The gems are a little disdainful of him:

PEARL: Greg is. . . nice, Steven, but I doubt Rose would trust someone like him with such a powerful weapon. 

AMETHYST: Your dad is kind of a mess, Steven.

PEARL: Amethyst!

AMETHYST: I’m just saying! Even if she did leave it with him, he probably broke it, or lost it, or dropped it in the ocean by now.

GARNET: True.

And in the scene where we first see him, he is clearly supposed to be extremely schlubby. He lives in a van, works at a car wash, is napping in the early evening, and seems to have a permanent t-shirt tan that his tank top does a poor job of hiding. He’s pretty unkempt, with long hair and a beard. He also has a pronounced hoarding tendency, as evidenced by his practically labyrinthine storage unit.

But despite all this, Greg seems perfectly. . . happy. The traditional markers of success don’t seem to mean much to either him or Steven — rather, they are both content to simply hang out with each other and have a great time. And, you know, save the world. The episode goes out of its way to point out that the things that society tells us we need aren’t always necessary for happiness or fulfillment. And it does this by creating an endearing, loving dynamic between Steven and Greg that is just endless fun to watch. Steven’s unwavering support of his dad’s music, and the goofy little bopping up-and-down dance he does to “Let Me Drive My Van Into Your Heart,” never fail to give me the warm fuzzies when I watch this episode.

Perhaps most importantly, this episode gives us the first use of Greg’s signature catchphrase, which might be as close to a concise philosophical summary of Steven Universe as we get: “If every pork chop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hot dogs.” 

Put more literally: if you expect perfection from every aspect of a process, you will miss out on a world of delicious opportunities. Even more literally: if all you care about is things going the way you want, not only will you be disappointed, but you’ll be denying a fundamental truth of the human experience, and you won’t have any fun. This philosophy is backed up by the lyrics to Greg’s song:

I know I’m not that tall;

I know I’m not that smart.

But let me drive my van into your heart,

Let me drive my van into your heart.

. . .

And if we look out of place,

Well, baby, that’s okay.

I’ll drive us into outer space

Where we can’t hear what people say.

I know I don’t have a plan;

I’m working on that part.

At least I’ve got a van,

So let me drive my van into your heart!

Let me drive my van into your heart!

I think you can interpret this song in a number of ways: on the surface, it is clearly Greg speaking to Rose, but I think it could also be Rose speaking metaphorically to her fellow Crystal Gems (I can’t expand on that assertion right now, but we’ll come back to it). Alternatively, it could be the show speaking to us, the audience, telling us to embrace our own imperfections.

It is no coincidence that Rose made the phrase “If every pork chop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hot dogs” the command to unlock her laser light cannon. Metaphorically, embracing imperfection here is the key to unlocking one’s own power. And it’s also not a mistake that the cannon responds to a human phrase, about a human subject, and comes from a human storage unit. Remember, the Gems didn’t bother to look for the cannon, out of a lack of faith in Greg. But Steven has ties to both the Gems, who can fight the Red Eye, and his dad, who has the equipment to defeat it. This won’t be the last example of Steven’s two halves uniting to solve a problem.

Lastly, what does the Red Eye represent? Unlike the Centipeetle that the Gems fought last episode, it doesn’t seem particularly animalistic. Rather than attack, it simply looms ominously over Beach City, looking down on the humans and Gems below. Could this perhaps be a reference to The Great Gatsby, in which a billboard portraying the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg looms over the Valley Ashes, as if God is passing judgment over the events of the book?

I can’t say for sure, but I think we’re on the right track thinking of the Red Eye as an artificial, unfeeling, surveying presence. Believe it or not, we will hear about the Red Eye once more in a future episode. I missed it on my first few watches of the series; it’s a very subtle detail.

Conclusion

“Laser Light Cannon” feels like a significant step forward. It still has that childlike tone common to early episodes, but the animation and storytelling already feel much more confident; the sequence of the firing of the laser light cannon is absolutely gorgeous. I particularly love the things this episode does with color, as the creepy reddish-orange glow of the Red Eye slowly infiltrates Beach City over the course of the eleven-minute runtime. The comedic beats of the show are also making progress; Steven’s aforementioned dance in the van is of course hilarious, but I love love love the image of quiet, powerful Garnet picking up scrappy Amethyst and just freakin’ launching her at the Red Eye like a dodgeball. Followed, of course, by Amethyst’s anticlimactic plunge into the ocean, and her cheerful “I’m alright!”

This episode isn’t necessarily a favorite of mine; despite being ripe for analysis, the interesting stuff is mostly below the surface. As a result, it’s not the best episode to convince new viewers to keep watching, as the emotional engagement has yet to really arrive. But it’s still a rollicking good time with plenty of material to chew on, and it’s integral enough to the series that it does not warrant a SKIP.

Aaron’s Steven Universe Guide #1: “Gem Glow”

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Hello! Welcome to Aaron’s Steven Universe Guide, a series of essays where I plan to go through every single episode of Steven Universe, one of the best shows on television, and look at each one from a critical perspective. I love Steven Universe a lot, so much so that I recently started showing it to my new roommate who had never seen it. Rewatching the series from the beginning has been fascinating to say the least, and I’ve been having trouble finding the words to express to my roommate why I find it so fascinating. I’ve nearly always expressed myself better in writing, and I have SO MANY THOUGHTS about EVERY SINGLE EPISODE of this show, so here we are. I cannot promise these will be regular, but they will always be passionate.

I intend for these to be critical — and like when I write theater criticism, I will not be shy about when I love something. But I would also like to take some unflinching looks at Steven Universe’s flaws, which no piece of art is free of. I’d also like to take a look at the show’s tremendous social impact — SU is arguably the most progressive TV show of all time, and I’d like to celebrate that. At the same time, as it bravely forages into untrod territory in terms of representation, it understandably makes some missteps along the way, which we will also be covering as we go along.

I will also be writing these without spoilers, so that you can read them as you watch the series for the first time. I will occasionally discuss foreshadowing, but I will try my best to avoid context as much as possible when that happens.

For now, let’s start with Season 1, Episode 1, “Gem Glow.”

Synopsis

We zoom in on a lazy beach town, and then into the eating establishment The Big Donut. Our story begins in media res, as a young boy in a pink shirt named Steven discovers that his favorite dessert, Cookie Cat, has been discontinued, and is justifiably heartbroken. The two teenage employees on duty are Lars and Sadie. Lars makes fun of Steven and points out Steven’s “magic bellybutton,” and Steven reveals for the first time the round, pink gem where his navel should be. Sadie is more empathetic, and lets Steven take the Cookie-Cat-branded mini-freezer home.

Steven walks home to his residence, a cozy beachside house which seems to be embedded in the front of an ancient, mysterious temple in the shape of a large, many-limbed woman. Inside, he stumbles upon his three guardians; Amethyst, Pearl, and Garnet. They are fighting several green-ish, insectoid monsters, called “centipeetles.” As the three gems defeat the centipeetles, Steven discovers that they (the gems, not the centipeetles) have bought a bunch of Cookie Cat desserts and stored them in the freezer, making him understandably overjoyed. Upon eating one, Steven’s gem glows pink, sparking excitement, but the glow soon fades. 

Steven is saddened, and asks the gems to teach him how to summon a weapon from his gem. Each of the trio has a short session with him, attempting to explain how to do so with their unique perspectives and personalities, and each summons a weapon from her respective gem. Pearl’s gem is on her forehead; she summons a spear. Amethyst’s gem is on her chest (one could argue, near her heart); she summons a whip. Garnet has two gems, one on each palm, and summons gauntlets.

After some false starts, Steven finally manages to summon his weapon, a shield, while eating a Cookie Cat. This leads him to the conclusion that he can only summon his shield if he eats ice cream. Therefore, when the mother centipeetle attacks the house, Steven charges into battle armed with nothing but a freezer full of Cookie Cats, with predictably disastrous results. Thankfully, Steven is nonetheless able to help the gems subdue and defeat the centipeetle, which turns into a small green sphere. Garnet “bubbles” the sphere, and the gems comfort Steven, assuring him he’ll get better at summoning his weapon someday.

Analysis

One of the things I enjoy most about Steven Universe is the way that, over the course of the surprisingly long first season, it slowly reveals tidbits of information to the audience. This makes the worldbuilding feel natural and grounds the story in Steven’s perspective. “Gem Glow” has an outwardly goofy and childlike tone, like many early episodes, which can turn off prospective adult viewers and indeed turned me off a little on my first time through the series. Overall, it’s more interesting to re-watch than watch, given that it contains some lovely subtle foreshadowing of future reveals. Without spoilers:

LARS: Tough bits, man. Nobody buys [Cookie Cats] anymore. Guess they couldn’t compete with Lion Lickers.

STEVEN: Not Lion Lickers! Nobody likes them!

 

STEVEN: *rapping the Cookie Cat commercial song* He’s a frozen treat with an all new taste! / And he came to this planet from outer space! / A refugee from an interstellar war! / And now he’s at your local grocery store!

But beyond that, this episode immediately establishes some interesting paradigms.

First, that Steven lives not with his biological parents, but with three seemingly non-human warrior ladies who live in a magic temple and battle monsters on the regular. The fact that they are seemingly all co-parenting him suggests that, even if the Crystal Gems are not yet explicitly queer, there is certainly some queer coding going on.

Next, that Steven seems to have perhaps an unhealthy relationship with food; he develops an extreme emotional attachment to a dessert, and when he suspects the dessert is the key to his magic power, he force-feeds himself a great deal of it, to comedic effect. As a fellow dessert addict with unhealthy habits around food myself, I can certainly empathize. Where it gets troubling is how the episode portrays Steven’s weight. Several visual gags are based around Steven’s ample stomach surrounding his gem, and basing the plot of the first episode directly around sugary food and Steven’s overconsumption seems just a tad fat-phobic, especially as the joke seems to be at Steven’s expense. This contributes to the misconception that fat people have inherently worse food habits than thinner people, which is not only untrue and unsubstantiated, but perpetuates harmful prejudices. Now, if you’ve watched the series, you know that I will eventually have to revisit this particular criticism, as the portrayal of different body types on Steven Universe goes through many different and thoughtful iterations; we’re definitely going to come back to this point.

Lastly, more so than in the non-canon series pilot, “Gem Glow” gives us a small glimpse at the personalities of each of our three main Gem characters. Pearl is graceful, precise, affectionate, articulate, and exudes Mom Energy. Amethyst is more down-to-Earth; she is the only gem we see in a human environment, namely the Big Donut. We also see her messily eating a donut while there, indicating that like Steven she enjoys the earthly pleasure of eating — and her “chill out” attitude towards weapon-summoning establishes her as a more Cool Big Sister to Steven than a parental figure. Garnet, meanwhile, is powerful and inscrutable, and though she speaks affectionately to Steven, it’s clear he finds her just a little intimidating. Importantly, none of the Gems’ personalities are fully formed yet. We are seeing them as Steven currently sees them, and as many of us see our parents when we are young; as powerful, awesome, otherworldly beings.

The final point concerns the actual mechanism by which Steven summons his shield, which is emotion. Although it goes unmentioned, Steven’s gem only glows in this episode when he is happy. The first time, it is because he is relieved at getting his favorite dessert back — and the second time, when the shield appears, it is because the gems are comforting him and giving him encouragement. That both moments occur during ice cream consumption is incidental. The fact that Steven’s powers are tied to his emotions is incredibly important, but we can’t talk about it much yet.

Conclusion

Overall, I think it’s safe to say that kids might enjoy this particular episode more than adults might. One of the fascinating things about Season 1 is how it starts off as a bog-standard adventure show for kids, and then slowly strips away layers to get at complicated adult issues. As such, seeing as I am writing these guides mostly for adults, many early episodes will garner a SKIP stamp from me, indicating that if you are trying to get to the really good, meaty material, you might want to skip this one. But while I don’t find “Gem Glow” particularly engaging on an emotional level, I don’t think it merits a SKIP given all the important groundwork it lays. And I think that starting on a later episode would be a bit disorienting. I like “Gem Glow,” but I also think it’s more necessary than it is enjoyable, if that makes sense.

Thoughts on the Steven Universe Finale

Contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for Season 5 Episode 29 of Steven Universe, “Change Your Mind.” And probably all of Steven Universe before that, so, you know. Avoid this if you don’t wanna hear any of that.

Okay, so we all knew that Steven was going to befriend White Diamond in the end, right? Because that’s how Steven defeats all his enemies. He befriends them, encourages them to think about their lives more healthily, etc. The show is essentially Pokemon if it were about collecting aunts. We know this.

But here’s the thing; the appeal of White Diamond in “Legs From Here To Homeworld” — the thing that was so delightfully terrifying about her — was that she was distant. Above. Deity-like, both in her appearance/demeanor and her disinterest in mortal affairs. To her, the entire war for Earth? Pink/Rose/Steven’s epic emotional journey? The entire scope of the series so far, plus all the backstory and mythology? She describes it as Pink’s “little game,” and hopes that she got it out of her system.

She is to the other Diamonds as the Diamonds are to regular gems, as gems are to humans, as humans are to ants. That’s how far removed she is. That’s why that episode got me so excited, because I was looking forward to seeing HOW Steven would win her over. I knew that he would, of course, but I knew it would be his biggest, hardest task yet.

But then he solved it in one episode — and while I unabashedly loved every second of it, it felt super rushed and just a little bit contrived. And this was a NEW and UNPLEASANT feeling for me because. . . I don’t think I’ve ever had a criticism of Steven Universe before? Yeah, I’m trying to think of one, and I’m coming up empty. Weird. But anyway.

What if this episode. . . what if this episode were exactly the same, but different? What if the Crystal Gems lost the battle with White?

Let’s start at the beginning. I buy that Blue Diamond would help Steven and Connie escape with relatively little convincing; she’s been shown to have the most affection for Pink, and that scene was super good. I have a harder time buying that they’d get Yellow on board so quickly, though, after only a brief fight. What if that fight drove the wedge between Blue and Yellow even further, and it wasn’t fixed by the end?

(Sidenote, but Yellow’s quick redemption was kind of insulting — since we’ve met Pink, the Diamonds have been a metaphor for an abusive family, and suggesting that you can solve such deeply embedded issues after one brief conversation? Yeah, not a great look. It speaks to the problem with the episode at large, but hang on, I’m getting to that.)

So Blue and Stevonnie could briefly overpower Yellow and start to escape. But soon they run into White Pearl and other Gem forces. From then on, the big fight scene could proceed much as it did in the episode, with all the delightful new fusions, with the epic Spaceship Combo Robot, and Obsidian climbing her way into White’s head. THAT WAS AWESOME.

Then, we have Steven’s awesome confrontation with White, and her creepy puppeteering of the Crystal Gems (all AWESOME), which culminates in the horrifying act of White removing Steven’s gem. This was a CHILLING moment, and I had no idea what was gonna happen next.

And what happened right after that was very fitting. A weakened, horrified human Steven on one side — and then on the other side, out of his gem? We see the shape of Pink Diamond, and then Rose, and then. . . someone new. Someone who looks exactly like Steven, but acts distinctly unhuman. Who is calm, collected, mysterious, utterly confident, and just a little scary. I liked this — it was a striking and bold and affecting moment, and it was a clear symbol that the Diamonds are never going to get their perfect Pink back. She’s changed. She has grown beyond them.

But what if Steven didn’t fuse with his Gem self? What if GemSteven shouted at Steven and Connie to make their escape while he fought off White Diamond, just before injuring her just enough to loosen her control over the Gems? Including, of course, White’s Pearl, who of course is revealed to be Pink’s original Pearl.

(Sidenote, but I love the way this is handled in the episode, hinting at PinkPearl’s tragic backstory rather than telling us outright.)

So Steven, Connie, the Crystal Gems, and PinkPearl are all running to get to the Leg Ship. As they go, they run into Yellow Diamond and her forces — and just like when it seems all hope is lost, Bismuth, Lapis, and Peridot arrive in the fixed arm ship! And they make an exciting escape back to Earth, with half of Homeworld on their tail, and it’s all great.

Here’s what I like about my version; Steven doesn’t have his gem. He is weakened, barely able to walk, and he can’t summon his shield anymore. He feels utterly defeated, and hates having to rely solely on his friends to bail him out. It’s a similar feeling to the one that Korra has at the end of Season 3 of her show. He has to reckon what it’s like to be a regular human. You could base several episodes around this feeling, back in Beach City.

Furthermore, we now have PinkPearl as part of the gang. Here’s a Pearl who doesn’t have the last six thousand years of her memory, who is delighted to be reunited with Pink, but distraught and confused as to the circumstances. That’s fascinating; gimme an episode or two about that. Plus, more Deedee Magno Hall is always great.

AND THEN GET THIS! Meanwhile, back on Homeworld, GemSteven stops battling White Diamond as soon as the Gems escape, and flies off into space. We don’t know where he went or what he’s doing, which adds to his mystery.

Meanwhile, White Diamond still develops a flaw. She starts to turn pink around the eyes and loses her control powers, just like she did in the episode — but in my version, she doesn’t realize it at first. And when she does realize, she doesn’t tell anyone. Instead of Steven straight-up TELLING White Diamond that her way of life is unsustainable and having her immediately come around. . . why not have her figure this out for herself? That way, we see her facade of godhood gradually degrade and crack as she struggles to maintain it.

Yellow is still allied with White, and angry with Blue for helping Pink escape. On White’s orders, Yellow imprisons Blue in the very same tower that Pink was put in so many times before. You could have SEVERAL GODDAMN AMAZING SCENES between the two of them. Yellow visiting Blue in her cell, berating her for her insanity. Blue casting withering looks at her. Blue immediately draws a parallel between what they both did to Pink and what Yellow is doing now — and it is this that makes Yellow start to doubt White Diamond’s worldview, rather than a quick conversation on a bridge.

See what I mean about how the episode hit all the correct emotional beats, but too fast? Abuse, dysfunction, and totalitarian power structures cannot be undone in 45 minutes, no matter how hard you try. In real life, those things are fucking difficult to disassemble and process. That takes your entire life, and lots of therapy. I want to see some reflection of that, you know? (And the frustrating thing is, the show usually acknowledges this really well!)

Back on Earth, Steven could have some small-scale adventures as a full human, where he learns how to deal. And he gets to a point where he’s. . . okay. He’s still devastated, but he’s healing. (ALSO I WANT AN EPISODE WITH HIM AND THE TWO PEARLS ON AN ADVENTURE, GIVE ME THIS NOW PLEASE.)

And at some dramatically appropriate moment, GemSteven arrives on Earth from outer space. He doesn’t speak, but they look at each other for a long moment. HumanSteven has gained an understanding of GemSteven in his absence. Only then do they fuse. Steven gets his power back, and he cherishes it all the more.

And then he could go back to Homeworld, where things are rapidly degrading. Blue is in jail. Yellow is getting even more angry and reclusive. White is slowly losing control and coherence. Meanwhile, the Gem populous is in uproar. They want to launch another attack on Earth, but no orders are coming from above.

And now Steven can have those tough conversations with Yellow, and with White. And now it makes much more sense that they would listen to him, because they’ve seen for themselves that he’s right. THEN AND ONLY THEN are they convinced to come back to Earth and heal the corrupted gems.

And even then, don’t rush it. Now you have a bunch of healthy, sentient Gems on Earth who, like PinkPearl, can’t remember the last six thousand years. Do they stay? Do they go? How do you talk to all of them? If they’re leaving, what’s the evacuation plan? If they’re staying, how do they coexist with humans? I assume some of this will be covered in the movie, but I’m not making any bets.

AAAAAAAANYWAY. This turned into a rant. But wouldn’t that have been more satisfying? They’ve got another season, right? Plus a movie. So why not USE it? Why wrap things up that quickly and neatly? Like, I’m not even sure what can happen in the movie that’ll be satisfying. They have literally saved all the corrupted gems, and wrapped up the entire conflict with the diamonds. Christ, even Jasper and Amethyst got a quick reconciliation scene. Every loose end has been tied up.

That being said, this show is still the best thing that has ever happened, quite possibly in the history of anything ever, and I will defend Steven Universe with my life, my soul, my heart, my body, the kitchen sink, and anything I happen to have in my fridge.

TLDR: I agree with every storytelling beat of the finale, but it disappointed me because it resolved everything too quickly. What we saw should have all happened over a season or a movie, not in one hour-long episode.

The Collapse of Wizarding Society As We Know It: How Hermione Granger’s Parents Will Probably Cause the Apocalypse

This is an essay I wrote for my Harry Potter class a few years ago, and I am still absurdly proud of it. It is here more for posterity than anything else.

There is no pair of characters in the Harry Potter canon that intrigues me more, and yet is mentioned less, than the two parents of Hermione Granger. Over the course of seven books — several of which are the longest children’s books in the modern canon, and all of which cover themes of family, parental strife, and the role that parents play in their offsprings’ lives even after they’re gone — Hermione’s parents appear a grand total of once, and are very seldom mentioned. Furthermore, on several occasions when they are casually mentioned, their behavior towards Hermione, and their treatment by the wizarding community, raises many important and often mind-boggling questions about the relationship between the Wizard and Muggle worlds.

The word “granger” comes from old French and English, and it refers to a farm bailiff — basically, someone who oversees the finances of a farm. That term, in turn, is derived from the Latin “granica,” meaning granary. The farming imagery, plus the rather banal sound of the name itself, connotes a rather ordinary family, and indeed every bit of information we are given on Hermione’s parents seems to confirm this. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hermione confirms that both of her parents are dentists. We know that Mr. and Mrs. Granger occasionally take their daughter on vacations: in Prisoner of Azkaban they holiday in France, in Order of the Phoenix they take her skiing, and in Deathly Hallows Hermione reveals that they have taken her to both Tottenham Court Road and the Forest of Dean. We also know that they are very smart (there’s no way Hermione only developed her bookworm tendencies after learning she was a witch, and becoming a dentist requires extensive education), and they are very passionate about dental hygiene: in Goblet of Fire they send Harry several sugar-free snacks over the summer when he requests emergency food, and discourage Hermione from using magic to adjust the size of her front teeth.

What we don’t know, however, is any of their opinions on witchcraft and wizardry in general, which is fascinating to me. There are only four Muggles in the Harry Potter series who are both aware of the wizarding world’s existence and are shown having definite opinions about it: these are of course the three Dursleys and the unnamed Muggle Prime Minister in Book 6. The former abhor all things magical and prefer to pretend that wizardry doesn’t exist; the latter grudgingly accepts the Ministry of Magic as something he occasionally has to deal with, but most of the time keeps a similar strategy of pushing that world to the back of his mind. Why, then, do Mr. and Mrs. Granger so readily accept the fact that wizards live among us, and seemingly form what seems to be a normal, healthy relationship with their magical daughter? And what regulations are in place to make sure that these Muggle parents don’t break the International Statute of Secrecy?

To answer these questions, let’s take a brief tour through Mr. and Mrs. Granger’s relationship with the wizarding world. When Muggle-born children are sent Hogwarts letters, we are given to understand (mostly from Dumbledore’s visit to Tom Riddle’s orphanage presented in a flashback in Half-Blood Prince, and the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Granger are clearly aware their daughter is a witch) that someone — perhaps either a Hogwarts teacher or a Ministry of Magic official — makes a visit to their home to break the news that a) magic exists, b) their child is a wizard, and c) that we want to take your child to a magical boarding school. Presumably, there are articles in the International Statute of Secrecy that allow for this, as well as for the use of Memory Charms or other magic in case the encounter does not go well. However, the incentive for the interaction to go well is extreme, as we know from the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that a Muggle-born wizard who remains untrained, or is otherwise made to suppress their magic, can become an Obscurial if left to stew too long.

When Mr. and Mrs. Granger (and indeed Mr. and Mrs. Evans a generation earlier) were told that their daughter was a witch, they clearly responded in a positive manner, although we cannot know for sure. But judging from the fact that Hermione is already extremely familiar with many wizarding texts not included in her required school list by the time she steps on the Hogwarts Express, it is safe to assume that they accompanied her to Flourish and Blotts in Diagon Alley and allowed her to purchase as many books as she wanted. But what happens when parents put in their situation don’t respond so positively? We know from the Dursleys that Muggle attitudes towards wizardry can vary widely, but even the Dursleys grudgingly let Harry attend Hogwarts after some (frankly) bullying from Hagrid. What happens when Muggle parents stubbornly refuse to let their children attend, even after the visiting wizard informs them of the threat an Obscurial would pose? Can wizards get in trouble with the Muggle government for kidnapping?

I would suggest a much darker possibility, one that is intimated by Hermione in The Deathly Hallows, when she puts her parents under a powerful Memory Charm to make them forget they have a daughter (as well as think their names are Wendell and Monica Wilkins, and suddenly develop a desire to move to Australia). She does this to protect them from Death Eaters, but I believe that wizards in the past must have done it to prevent young Muggle-born wizards from becoming Obscurials. Especially since the incident in New York in the 1920’s, which resulted in chaos and destruction, it would be too risky to let unwilling, abusive Muggle parents to continue stifling the magic in their wizard children. It would hardly be the shadiest thing that Hogwarts or the Ministry did in that century. But then, of course, would they have to modify the memory of the young witch or wizard? What happens when they grow up and investigate their past?

But that is not even the darkest possibility that the activities of the Granger parents suggests. Let us go for a moment to Chamber of Secrets, when Mr. and Mrs. Granger make their second (and seemingly last) trip to Diagon Alley to help Hermione buy her school supplies. We first see them “standing nervously” at the entrance to Gringotts, where they are greeted with great gusto by Arthur Weasley, who of course finds them endlessly fascinating, goggling at them throughout the day as though they are animals in a zoo. They exchange their Muggle money for wizarding currency at Gringotts, and then have a drink with Arthur in the Leaky Cauldron (we don’t get to see this but presumably they spend the time talking about the machinations of their Muggle lives with a very overeager wizard). The next time we see them, they are in Flourish and Blotts. Here, they witness a photoshoot with the wizarding celebrity Gilderoy Lockhart, as well a fight between Arthur Weasley and Lucius Malfoy that is not only incredibly uncomfortable but quite illustrative of politics in the wizarding world at the time.

But here’s the kicker: at the end of the day, they simply waltz out the door of the Leaky Cauldron, back into the Muggle world. Their memories are not modified, and nobody is shown monitoring Muggle activity in and out of the Leaky Cauldron.

Now, in The Sorcerer’s Stone Harry cannot see the Leaky Cauldron on the street until Hagrid points it out to him, so it stands to reason that Muggles cannot see it unless they are directed to it by one who can. The wizard who delivered Hermione’s acceptance letter most likely informed them how to get to Diagon Alley, as Dumbledore did for Tom Riddle. But the question remains: what provisions are in place to stop the Grangers from going home and blabbing to all their Muggle friends about the wizarding world, how it works, the state it’s in, and how to get there?

In the case of the Dursleys, they are inclined of their own accord to suppress any knowledge of Harry’s oddity. But this is an inherently unreliable system, as not all Muggles share the Dursleys’ aversion to magic. More likely, when the visiting wizard speaks with the family of a Muggle-born, we can deduce that they are required to tell them about the International Statute of Secrecy, and that they are not to tell any of their Muggle friends about the wizarding world. It is logical that the Muggle parents would then be required to sign some sort of charmed nondisclosure agreement, which would magically alert the Ministry if magic was mentioned to someone outside the young wizard’s immediate family: we already know that the Ministry monitors wizard-inhabited Muggle homes to detect underage magic, so this is not that far of a stretch.

But here’s where this system can fail: wizards are consistently shown to have limited knowledge of Muggle technology, so much so that their spectacular ignorance is often played for comedy. Even Arthur Weasley, a man who has devoted his life to studying Muggle inventions, consistently gets things wrong: as late as Order of the Phoenix he refers to a telephone as a “fellytone.”

In addition, a great deal of wizarding secrecy is predicated on the idea that all Muggles have an inherently Dursley-esque attitude towards magic — namely, that they will go to ridiculous ends to pretend that it doesn’t exist even when the evidence is right in front of them. In Chamber of Secrets Arthur insists that even when Muggles are given Vanishing keys, they will ignore the evidence and insist they’ve lost them. In Order of the Phoenix, Hagrid asserts that the reason mountain-dwelling giants can freely prey on Muggles is that the other Muggles attribute the disappearances to avalanches without bothering to investigate. These are hardly the only examples: countless times throughout the series the legitimate question “How come the Muggles don’t notice this?” is brushed off with “Muggles don’t notice anything!”

I have lived among Muggles for twenty-two years, and in my experience the exact opposite is true. Muggles notice everything: they are paranoid, panicky, and prone to creating insane conspiracy theories based on small amounts of evidence. And this trend has only sharpened in intensity since, of course, the advent of the internet.

That’s right, once again, the internet ruins everything. The Harry Potter series takes place primarily in the 1990’s, before the internet was a universal constant in every Muggle’s day-to-day life. Nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts, my smartphone can do much more than simply photograph my meals. It can take instant video of anything I happen to see in public; a wizard Disapparating on the street, for instance, or a family shuffling through a busy train station with an owl in a cage and then disappearing into what is supposed to be a solid brick wall. Then, ten minutes later, my entire friend group has seen the exact same thing — and two days later, so have ten thousand other mystified Muggles.

In addition, if wizards haven’t learned how to pronounce the word “telephone” by 1996, then they certainly aren’t aware of how social media works by 2017. Even the magical nondisclosure agreement I just signed can’t stop me from tweeting about my wizard son — how could it? Wizards don’t even know what Twitter is! Considering the sloppy enforcement of the Statute of Secrecy we witnessed throughout the Harry Potter books, it absolutely stands to reason that the International Confederation of Wizards is shitting their pants right about now. Entire Muggle governments — not just their leaders anymore — are becoming wise to the fact that wizards are living among us in secret, and that they could solve most of our problems with a swish and a flick. As poor as the Weasleys were, food was never a problem for them, not when you can transfigure objects into food, increase food you’ve already got, and cook by magic. And I’m certain that citizens of Flint, Michigan would welcome at least one magic individual capable of shouting “Aguamenti!” Of course, we Muggles are also quite capable of producing enough food and clean water for everyone and still don’t do it. But try telling an angry politician that.

I want you to imagine that your name is Monica Wilkins, and you and your husband Wendell are living your quiet lives somewhere in suburban Australia when suddenly, an unfamiliar girl rushes into your home, points a wooden stick at you, and mutters a strange Latin phrase. All of a sudden, your identity begins to crumble. . . your last name isn’t Wilkins, it’s Granger, and this strange girl standing in front of you is actually your daughter — how could you have forgotten your own daughter? And then, as the daughter you’ve just remembered begins to explain the long, complicated story of why she had to do this to you, of the danger she put herself in, of the terrifying power she wields over your very perception of reality — wouldn’t you feel scared? Wouldn’t you begin to harbor some resentment, not just toward Voldemort, but the entire wizarding world? Wouldn’t you want to tell your therapist about it?

The unraveling of the wizarding world as we know it starts and ends with Mr. and Mrs. Granger, and J.K. Rowling doesn’t even do us the favor of telling us their first names.

Works Cited

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Dir. David Yates. Screenplay by J. K. Rowling. Perf. Eddie Redmayne. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2016. Film.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1998. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1999. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Random House, 1999. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Random House, 2005. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Random House, 2007. Print.

Review of ‘Incredibles 2’

I wrote this for Rescripted.org as part of their young critics’ mentorship program, and it can also be found on their website.

Image result for incredibles 2

People like Pixar movies for many reasons. But by far, the reason I love this studio so much is that each Pixar movie has a distinct and easily distillable moral center. Each of these has shaped who I am today in some way — ideas like the difficulty of growing up, the importance of preserving childlike wonder into adulthood, and the sham of capitalism, among other things.

But these moral centers are usually quite personal, and the reason Incredibles 2 is the best Pixar movie is that it asks a question concerning not just the viewer, but the way the viewer will affect the world around them.

The intervening years between Incredibles 1 and 2 have of course brought a veritable glut of superhero movies, so this movie had a lot to prove. The difficult line that Incredibles 2 walks — nostalgic yet innovative, human yet fast-paced  — is a mammoth achievement in and of itself. But I’d like to focus on the movie’s themes, because Incredibles 2 is a story about people trying to control the superhero narrative. Every character in this film is selling a story, whether to the public or to themselves. Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), media businessman and superhero fanboy, is the most obvious example — he sells the public a controlled narrative about Elastigirl so he can feel better about his father’s death. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) gets the opportunity in this movie to reclaim her own narrative; the simple glory of saving people and looking cool doing it. And Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is of course dealing with giving up that same narrative so he can care for his kids, all the while selling the narrative that he’s a good dad so hard that it eventually becomes true.

Even super-daughter Violet Parr (Sarah Vowell) gets in on this theme, in a comic yet crucial subplot in which her high school crush Tony Ridinger gets his memory of her wiped. There’s a reason that as her mom is reshaping the perception of superheroes in the public eye, Violet is trying to rebuild the memory of herself in Tony. And. . . she doesn’t do a great job.

In fact, no hero in this movie does a great job. The day is saved, but in the same way that the Underminer never gets captured, the underlying problem is never resolved. Heroes are legal again, but the reason they were made illegal in the first place hasn’t been addressed.

And that reason, of course, is public complacency! This movie explores in depth the dire consequences of putting too much faith in public figures, of trusting that we can lay back while the powerful solve our problems, and the ways our media reinforces this in subtle and insidious ways. There’s a reason the villain controls people through television and computer screens. There’s a reason Elastigirl earns the public’s trust through a body camera — by literally letting her audience live their own superhero fantasy through her, as every superhero movie does. At its worst, a superhero movie gives you the adrenaline rush of saving the world without empowering you to actually do it. Real world-ending problems are invisible, dull, and entrenched within systems; you can’t stop global warming by blowing it up. And that one celebrity you love, or that one politician you voted for, isn’t going to fix it, at least not without your help.

I like that Incredibles 2 revels in the giddy theatrics of heroism without being afraid to savagely critique its effects. Superheroes are troubling because they teach us that things get better through individuals, and not because we make things better together, through massive civil movements, which I might point out is the only way in history anything has ever gotten better, ever.

Incredibles 2 asks: How are modern superhero narratives making us complacent? And what, if anything, can we do about it?

The fact that this movie manages to make these devastating observations while still being a manic, self-contained, and visually stunning ride is nothing short of astonishing to me.