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Craig Of The Creek Uses Pokémon As A Perfect Metaphor For Growing Up

In “The Evolution of Craig” episode of Cartoon Network’s refreshingly pure animated series Craig of the Creek, our young hero struggles with the idea of growing up and the fear of transforming into a different, older person. With a tadpole taking the place of a pocket monster, Craig learns a Pokémon-inspired lesson about the benefits of evolving as a person.

Craig of the Creek centers on a trio of young friends growing up in a magical throwback neighborhood where children go out and play instead of sitting inside fiddling with screens. The woods and waterways surrounding Craig’s neighborhood are home to a vast society of children whose imaginations cast them as adventurers, explorers, inventors, and defenders of their domain. Nine-year-old Craig is a cartographer, mapping his magical land with his constant companions Kelsey, a red-headed eight-year-old who fancies herself a warrior, and J.P., a tall, bumbling, 10-year-old with a Southern accent and a kind heart.

The show reminds me of my own childhood, roaming or biking through the woods surrounding my suburban Atlanta street, going on tiny adventures that seemed so much larger back in the day. My friends and I were a little older and some of our adventures involved beer or pot, but the vibe is the same. It’s a show adults can appreciate, as demonstrated by Kotaku contributor Ben Bertoli’s article on one of the show’s earlier video game-themed episodes and subsequent interview with its creators.

“The Evolution of Craig”, which aired on August 24 and is available to stream on the Cartoon Network website, never directly mentions Pokémon. Craig and his grandfather, fresh from a visit to the library to pick up a book for the boy’s fifth-grade summer reading assignment, stumble upon a tadpole stranded in a puddle. With a predatory bird lurking dangerously close, Craig’s grandfather urges him to take the baby home to protect it as it grows.

In response, Craig hurls a plastic capsule from a vending machine at the puddle, disappointed when it doesn’t work “like in that show.” Craig ends up collecting the tadpole by more conventional means, taking it home and placing it in an aquarium.

The tadpole is a welcome distraction for Craig. With the summer coming to an end and fifth grade looming, the imaginative youngster is worried about his future. His fifth-grade summer reading assignment is an adult book. Soon he’ll have adult responsibilities. Instead of going on adventures, he’ll have to do adult things like driving around for no reason. Will his friends still be his friends? Will the creek still be his haven? Unfortunately for Craig, his distraction doesn’t last long. His tadpole friend, as tadpoles do, is slowly transforming into an adult frog.

The Pokémon parallels in this episode are plentiful. The evolution cards are brilliant. The chiptune musical cues are wonderfully subtle. Commercial breaks feature hilarious “Who’s That Creek Kid?” segments featuring incidental characters no one remembers. At one point, worrying that he’s turning into his stodgy older brother Bernard, Craig imagines himself evolving like a Pokémon and getting into a turn-based battle with his friends when they don’t recognize his older, more mature self.

The tadpole inevitably becomes a frog. Craig tries to hide the now-adult amphibian from his grandfather but gets caught. The frog doesn’t want to leave. Craig wants to play with his friends. He’s not ready to go to fifth grade and evolve into Bernard.

Grandpa sets his grandson straight. “I know change is scary, but just because you’re growing up doesn’t mean you’re going to stop being you,” the old man explains. “You’ll always be Craig. You’ll just know more and be able to do more.”

Change is indeed scary. I first discovered Craig of the Creek in the hospital last year following a harrowing health issue. I turned on Cartoon Network figuring it would bring me closer to my children, who were too young to come see me in the intensive care unit. Watching Craig of the Creek I imagined them outside playing in the woods, but I also saw myself. Newly-paralyzed from the chest down, I was struggling with my own scary change. The show helped. I only wish “The Evolution of Craig” had aired a bit sooner.

The episode ends with an exciting battle between the evolved tadpole and his nemesis, and Craig one step closer to being the very best Craig he can be, like no one ever was.

Source: Kotaku.com

The Powerful Transgender Narrative in Steven Universe 

Steven, himself.
Image: Cartoon Network

Steven Universe has always been invested in queer representation. Rebecca Sugar and her team have worked to present the lives and loves of LGBTQ+ people in ways comprehensible to kids and palatable to censors, building a story about found family and the freedom to love who you want out of a space opera about sentient gemstones and a gregarious magical child.

But in the latest arc, the show has told a more specific story, one that speaks to me very personally. It’s not just a metaphorically queer story. Instead, it re-positions all of Steven Universe as a metaphorically trans one.

Steven Universe has always been preoccupied with identity. Who is Steven, and what relationship does he really have to his mother, Rose Quartz, who gave her existence (and her gem) to allow him to be born? How does he live up to his mother’s legacy, and what does that even mean? The recent revelation that Rose is actually Pink Diamond, heir to an interstellar empire, makes those questions even more intense, and much of the show’s runtime has been spent with Steven learning to come to terms with who his mother was and wasn’t.

The latest arc, taking place on Homeworld, changes the terms of that conversation. When Steven enters the world of the Diamonds, he’s not seen as Pink Diamond’s descendant. Blue, Yellow, and White Diamond don’t even know what a descendant is. Gem society has no children, no parenting, not even any boys. Instead, by their understanding, Steven literally is Pink Diamond, either faking it in a strange disguise or suffering from some sort of amnesia. According to them, the human boy Steven Universe doesn’t exist. He’s just a persona. A mask.

For transgender viewers, that framing of the relationship between Steven and Pink might strike a nerve. It certainly did with me. For a lot of us, being trans looks like a complete change in persona—a new name, a new appearance, even a new personality. A gender transition (for those of us who do transition) can, over time, render you unrecognizable, an entirely different person in the same spot where the old one stood. And even those of us who don’t transition can take on significant changes—a new name, new pronouns. One of the quintessential struggles of trans-ness, then, is getting other people, especially people from our past, to understand and accept these new changes. And, in some cases, to even believe they’re legitimate—that you are, in fact, who and what you say you are.

The interactions and experiences Steven goes through during his time on Homeworld are strikingly similar to the struggles of a trans person facing an unaccepting or misunderstanding family. He constantly struggles to get the people around him to use his name—they insist on calling him Pink Diamond. Blue and Yellow regularly express bewilderment when Steven indicates that he’s not Pink in any way, or when he behaves in any way differently from their preconceptions about her. What’s worse, Yellow and White Diamond both express a belief that Steven isn’t, well, real. That Pink is still Pink, somewhere in there, just playing one of her “little games.”

The trans subtext comes to a head in “Change Your Mind,” a special that’s as much about the Diamonds learning to accept Steven as himself as it is about the Diamonds learning how to heal their broken family. As Blue, Yellow, and eventually even White come around to Steven’s side, they also come around to respecting his identity—in one fantastic moment, Blue tells Yellow, “I believe she prefers to be called Steven.” (Okay, she got his pronouns wrong, but we can maybe overlook that due to Homeworld literally not having any men. She’ll get there.) Both Blue and Yellow begin addressing Steven as himself, and when Steven confronts White Diamond, this is the issue raised to the surface.

White insists that Steven isn’t a real person and—in a rhetorical gesture that’s bound to be sadly familiar to a lot of trans viewers—suggests, instead, that he’s just an expression of Pink’s own psychological issues. This culminates in her straight-up removing his gem in an effort to prove her point. Soon after, the gem reforms, not as Pink Diamond or Rose Quartz, but as Steven. And when White asks where Pink is, this reformed Steven Gem roars, with a justified fury: “She’s gone!

She’s. Gone.
Image: Cartoon Network

They’re gone. In that one scene, Sugar and co. manage to illustrate the struggle of a trans person trying to demonstrate to their family that, yes, I am who I say I am. I really am a girl. Or a boy. Or non-binary. In reality, we can’t tear our insides out and present them to the people questioning us. But I know I’ve certainly wished I could, just to end the doubt. And there are some people who, like White Diamond, are unlikely to listen to anything less.

“Change Your Mind” ends with one of the simplest, but most important songs in the whole series. In it, Steven sings a message that seems aimed at every queer or trans kid who can’t find the acceptance they want. He sings:

I don’t need you to respect me, I respect me

I don’t need you to love me, I love me

But I want you to know you could know me

If you change your mind

When I was a kid, there weren’t any shows on television with such vivid, and moving, trans subtext. I’m glad kids growing up today have this one.

Source: Kotaku.com