Grasping On

  • Reading time:6 mins read

In hindsight it says a lot I think that the thing to first draw me in to Steven Universe was “Cry for Help.” There were lots of feelings I had no clue how to process. The scenario, it spoke to me—in a way I had trouble identifying.

Steven Universe s02e10: “Cry for Help” (2015)

It’s not direct, 1:1. But, like. I needed to see that.

It’s so hard to validate sometimes when a thing feels wrong and everyone you turn to is saying to you, what, you signed up for this; what are you complaining about; actually you owe this to the person making you feel this way, for putting up with you all this time.

The whole nature of my arrangement, it was like a big switcheroo, and I was trapped.

My body no longer belonged to me. I was no longer a person. I was just… an acquisition. For someone else’s use, at someone else’s whim. I was a prop for their benefit, and I had no more say.

Again, “Cry for Help,” it’s not exactly the same scenario. (Pearl is the one doing the coercion, for a start.) But, like. The point of the story is, our problems, the dangers we face, they aren’t really about bogeymen most of the time. People are people, and everyone is capable of great or terrible things, sometimes in the same breath. For practical reasons if nothing else, nearly all meaningful violence comes from people close to you. It’s hard to abuse a person without a foundation of trust.

Steven Universe Future s01e04: “Volleyball” (2019)

On some level, I knew things were wrong. I knew I was in a bad situation, and I didn’t know how to get away. But I just couldn’t address it. Not directly. Any problems I faced, I told myself they were my own fault; I just wasn’t strong enough. I needed to bear with it, try harder to prove my use to someone who didn’t even see me as human. I didn’t have the words or the resources to admit what I was facing, how wrong it was. And there was always some new emergency that was somehow mine to clear up.

I had ignored the show before that episode. Then I saw the response online. I looked up some reviews and saw what it was about. I dug up a copy and I watched it, repeatedly.

And just, seeing that coercion.

And, knowing, in some raw piece of what was left of me: oh.

There are so many abusive relationship dynamics in this show. It’s really something else—for any TV series, let alone a show aimed at twelve-year-olds. So many moments, it feels like the show is checking in on the viewer, saying, you see this? This isn’t okay. If it looks in any way familiar, go and chew that over for a minute. Maybe talk to someone.

Steven Universe s03e15: “Alone at Sea” (2016)

One of the reasons I like Lapis so much is, not only is her story just one big mound of whoomph identification over here; she’s also… not very likable. Lapis is a major fuckup. She’s prickly, and nasty, and inconsiderate. Not on purpose; just because, that’s what trauma often does to a person.

She knows how awful she can be. She knows how much she can hurt others without meaning to. It’s just, she just doesn’t know how to manage her pain and fear and depression well enough not to. The worse she responds, the worse she feels, because she doesn’t want to be like that. Every time she lashes out, all it does is affirm her own self-image that little bit more.

It’s not cute. It’s not cozy and sad and pathetic. Lapis is bitter and broken, and she has zero faith in herself. But, she also is so full of love and care and gratitude, that she wishes she knew how, had the basic fucking energy, to express.

It would be so easy to paint a character like Lapis as, oh, that poor little waif. Pity the mirror girl.

But no, Lapis is an asshole.

And it’s amazing.

And just, so… real.

Steven Universe Future s01e08: “Why So Blue” (2019)

90% of the time, Lapis is Extremely Not Helping. Because in the event she does anything, she doesn’t trust herself not to fuck it up or hurt someone or just lose control. But when she can keep it together? There’s no stopping her.

All that trauma, leading to all that bad behavior, all that conflict, all that grief and self-loathing, that’s the bulk of the show, just seeing how this plays out. Seeing people bounce off each other, bite each other’s heads off, weather each other’s abuse in the wake of things way bigger than them, that we never get to see clearly. Because they’re just the world Steven was thrown into. Much like us.

With Steven Universe, the real story happens long before the show begins. The show is about the fallout and the consequences of decisions ages in the past. What do we do now? What does this mean for us? How do we fix this? Can it even be fixed? Why is this on us? How is this fair?

Steven Universe: The Movie (2019)

This is in part why “Change Your Mind” has to happen as it does, why the trans allegory plays out in its slightly occluded way. Rose isn’t there anymore. She can’t end her story. She can’t fix things. She will never know closure. But we can still find a way to address her problems and move on.

We can give her a proper elegy, make sure the reasons behind her decisions are as clear as we can make them, and try our best to accept the present for what it is, and make the best of it that we can. Like Lapis, like Pearl—like Steven, like Amethyst—Rose was a fuckup, and she was in pain. That pain set all of this in motion. We can try to address the causes. Then for our part we can do better, we can be better. We can make a better life than we were handed.

That’s what it’s all about. That’s what everything is always about.

The throughline of Steven Universe is about working through the crap that has been left for you by forces outside your control and finding a way to live your life again.

And yet people remain baffled that Future plays out the way it does. As if it’s not the only possible resolution. As if the whole reason for this reckoning was for any other purpose than to come out the other side and find a way to be human.

Representing Choice

  • Reading time:4 mins read

So no kidding, the key that lodged in the back of my head and led me to recognize my queerness, some 30 years after it would have been useful to know, is this whole scene here—the dynamics of which we’ve all seen discussed in abstract, right? But to see it dramatized like this, and to recognize these thoughts and feelings so deeply…

This is precisely what I’ve felt whenever someone’s gotten close to me, and these are exactly the thoughts that have always run through my head. Even when the relationship lasts for years, that thought hangs there, coloring every single interaction: how long until they see me for who I really am, and then what will happen?

Like… it took a bit of unpacking for me to understand why I identified so closely with this business, based on what I had come to recognize about myself. The first step was recognizing the aroaceness, as reflected in the early interaction here. That wasn’t too tricky. I had empirical data to work with, and had been wrestling with years of browbeating for my lack of sexuality in relationships, which I just sort of interpreted as queerplatonic situations, without knowing the term.

The transness took a little longer to click, but then it was the biggest fucking “oh” in the world. My pan business… well, that took longer still, and isn’t directly informed by this comic, but after everything else it was more of a shrug. Sure, we’ve gone this far. Let’s just collect all the flags. Why not.

I think what really sells it is Steven’s awful, brain-dead avoidance strategy, which… yeah… followed by, “Maybe, instead, we should talk about what we want to do?” 

What we want to do?

Oh.

OH.

oh?

Like, I genuinely never understood that I had a choice. I thought I just had to play with what I was dealt, go along with other people’s expectations for me. When people gave me an ultimatum and told me we couldn’t be friends anymore unless we changed the terms of our relationship and did things I didn’t feel comfortable doing, I had the option to say no, you go coerce someone else. I’m fine here. I didn’t have to actively suppress everything I was in order to make other people comfortable all the time. I didn’t have to deal with abuse. I didn’t have to be who other people wanted me to be, and were angry when I wasn’t.

The autistic masking sure as hell plays into the above as well. like, there’s always this anxiety in the event one manages to “pass” that one is just working one’s self into a bigger and bigger problem, so that when they notice the truth, some real shit is going to go down.

“… what we want to do.”

Like, that kind of shook me. and for several months after I stumbled over the comic, I kept dwelling on it, putting myself in the place of Stevonnie, making analogies to all these scenes from my own past—thinking, what would I want to do? What do I want to do now? Does this apply in a real way? Is it too late? Do I have choices? What are they?

It turns out, yes. I had choices. Choices that I didn’t know enough to make. And then, I did.

Now here I am.

On Fucking Up

  • Reading time:3 mins read

Flaw is character. Flaws are what make us actual people, and not just cartoons. Flaws are what allow for beauty and growth and potential. Without flaw there is no hope. Stories often pay lip service to or structurally apply this ideal. It’s fun to root for the underdog, the misfit, so long as you know they’re in the right all along and they’ll show everyone in the end.

The best thing about Steven Universe is how deeply flawed every character is, how much they hurt themselves and each other as a result, and how committed the show is to showing them compassion anyway, without excusing their behavior, until they can learn to do better.

The thing people hate about Steven Universe is how deeply flawed the characters are, how much that drives the story, and the show’s refusal to pass judgment on them as people no matter how much it emphasizes the damage they do.

Because in our culture compassion is endorsement. To address a thing means to legitimize it.

So when Pearl… does what she does to Garnet, and for all the appropriate horror and weight, the show doesn’t write Pearl off entirely and rather spends this whole arc exploring the fallout of her decision, the peanut gallery chimes in about the show’s problematic attitudes toward rape.

So when, in desperation and to mixed success, Steven attempts to talk down the Diamonds—convince them to use their power to help people instead of hurting them—rather than look for a way to kill them outright, we get two-hour-long screeds on how a bisexual nonbinary Jewish woman is a Nazi apologist.

What makes the show magical is that it will not draw hard lines about people; only about the damage and the growth they cause and experience. It shows that anyone is capable of positive or negative change. It shows how attitudes and behavior are systemic, and how they cause a chain reaction that manifests in cycles far outside one’s control or direct understanding.

It’s a show about unconditional love and hope for change in a world that sucks where people repeat the garbage they’ve learned and don’t know how to do better even if they understand and accept the harm they do. Where the first step often is just accepting the pain and moving on.

And fuck if that isn’t the most relevant message in the world.

But we’re a culture that roars for blood and righteous retribution, where the only people who do bad things are people who are innately bad, and where some people are just more human, more deserving, than others.

Maybe if we had a few more positive philosophical models like this show, our cultural narrative would shift a bit. As it is, it’s a moral outlier. As anything that prioritizes kindness over righteous obedience will be. Because that’s what an unkind oligarchy has taught us is trouble.

Steven Universe is the best TV show ever, seriously, and if you haven’t yet you need to watch it until you understand it.

Which may take a while, as it’s fucking strange, and queer, and neurodiverse, and doesn’t signify or indicate or move or talk or think like any other show out there. But it’ll change your mind, change your life, if you allow it.

Revising the Past

  • Reading time:3 mins read

When I think of my childhood it’s basically just flat melancholy. So to engage with the pastel melancholy nostalgia of Steven Universe, it just—whoof. That wasn’t my life exactly, but in several emotional dynamics it feels so familiar—a past I recognize, yet with an optimism; a version where things can get better. The loneliness, the neglect, the emotionally unstable adults who act like needy little siblings to the children; the knowledge that you’re always doing everything wrong; the vague unprocessed dysphoria; very little sense of what’s normal or how to connect with others—it’s all part of the radiation.

So many episodes of the show, at least tonally, emotionally, they paint this picture of scenarios that could have been that way. They weren’t, and probably wouldn’t have been, but I understand them, almost remember them, in a way that I just don’t get from other stories.

I’ve talked about this before: I don’t emotionally engage with stories. I approach media with this satellite view, where I study how the pieces fit together to communicate meaning and I think about the way it’s done, how clearly it says its thing and whether that’s interesting. I think a big part of that is, I don’t feel like most things that people have to say are really meant for me. I engage with them like an alien, appreciating them on the basis of all the other abstract patterns I’ve seen in the last 40 years.

This show, for once something actually speaks my language. It communicates the way I communicate, prioritizes the things I find important, thinks and feels about things in a way I find intuitive, notices the details I notice, ignores the things I don’t care about, is queer and neurodiverse in ways that I never fully appreciated I was until decades after the harm was done. So many of the emotional consequences it shows to the scenarios it depicts, not only do I not see those, shown in that way, in other stories; they’re some of the truest, realist shit to my experience, often beyond what I’ve been able to process or communicate on my own.

To be able to reframe a neurodiverse, queer childhood and see it for what it is, and know that for all the universality of some experience it didn’t have to be as bad as it was… that’s a lot. The amount of healing it provides, just to see an alternate possible past, where for all the unavoidable problems one faces, unconditional love and acceptance are possible and reasonable to expect from others.

I get why people might not understand this series. It’s fucking weird. And it’s the only story I’ve met that more or less reflects my own perspective on the world. So, like. Other people, you get every other story that’s ever been told by anyone. I get this one.

Reality Bites

  • Reading time:3 mins read

The thing about that passing revelation in “Growing Pains” is, one can’t help but think of Lars. For the entire show we’ve seen Steven just take these extreme cartoonish injuries and thought little of it, so it came as such a shock when Lars banged his head, and that was it.

There was this tangible confusion. We’re watching this silly cartoon. He’s got to be fine, right. Steven lives through this all the time. Why get realistic now? The Off-Colors kind of echo our instincts, if not for the astonishingly brutal signifiers. They don’t quite get it.

But, like. Steven wasn’t any different. Episode after episode, his own bones were getting shattered over and over again. The only reason he’s still alive is the magic holding him together, knitting his pieces in real-time.

He was just used to it; he always seemed fine, no one showed him any particular concern, so he just dealt with the pain and kept going. So he didn’t really have that much reason to think other humans would be all that different. Yeah, they’d probably be a little more fragile but…

Lars’s death is the first moment the real implications of mixing this fantastical and the mundane really land. Like, you’re mixing normal people with relatively normal physics into this cartoon nonsense—and they’re going to break. They can’t play by the same heightened reality.

And it turns out Steven literally embodies that. Since the beginning the show has involved him staggering that line between the worlds, not treating either with the appropriate gravity, not quite understanding the separation or the consequences. Even after he sees the way this stuff affects the people he cares about, this danger and disregard that surrounds them every moment that he’s never taken all that seriously, it remains unclear how much he himself is affected. He seems fine.

But he’s not. He’s just being kept alive.

Which in turn brings back that sort of chilling line from the movie, not that much earlier.

It’s like. Steven, you’re disregarding your own pain that much, your own body’s signals, you’re getting that much neglect, that you don’t even realize you’re basically dead a hundred times over already. That’s your normal. Even after seeing your friend die, you don’t get it.

Life is fragile. None of what you’re doing is normal or healthy. You’re just as breakable as Lars, you deserve the same level of care. You’re only still here by virtue of a miracle, and you can’t even rely on that always saving you. Priyanka has some serious asses to kick.

The amount of neglect in Steven’s life that would lead for this revelation in episode 174 out of 180 to be any sort of a surprise… like, we saw it. We saw how reality works in this world. All it took was one knock, and Lars was gone. And yet, Steven just keeps eating the abuse.

Aside from some passing contextual alarm out of Greg, Priyanka of all people is the first adult in Steven’s life to show him an appropriate response, to treat him as a human child with his own physical and emotional needs. And he just has no fucking clue what to do with this.

This is how things get normalized. Our attitudes toward ourselves and others. Our assumptions about how the world works. How we build up unrealistic expectations. If there had just been one adult in Steven’s life showing him appropriate care, he would know what it looked like.

What it does not look like is this:

Freedom from Identity

  • Reading time:2 mins read

Of the three main Gems, Garnet’s story has always seemed the most muted and hazily defined. If you go back with the understanding that she is trans (as one of many dimensions to the metaphor she embodies), her whole character arc of learning to be honest and open about who she is, embracing her inner complexity and allowing herself to be vulnerable, it takes on a lot more color. It all starts to open up and make sense in a similar way to Amethyst’s and Pearl’s inner journeys.

From the start it’s just taken as read that Garnet is who she says she is. But she asserts this so strongly as to be rigid in her attitudes toward herself and her potential, and as to not let anyone in. She has to learn how to be a verb, and not just a noun. A person, not just an identity.

There’s this sort of fear that letting people know her too closely, or performing outside of this narrow definition she’s made for herself, will negate her identity, cause them to respect her less on her own terms. Which is not an entirely unwarranted fear, as we see in the show.

So her journey is about learning that essential trust in the truth of who she is, so that she doesn’t have to be defensive about it, protect it all the time. So that she can feel free to just live.

All the Tears that She Cried

  • Reading time:2 mins read

So how many times has Greg seen Pearl poofed? He seems to know exactly how it works—using language that suggests first-hand sensory experience that he struggles to articulate—and to know that Pearl’s reboot is unusual for her. 

If we take Pearl’s memory as accurate, both when Steven enters her gemstone and in the later context of musical theater, then she seems to have remained intact from the night she met Greg up until she learned about Rose’s plans for the future.

Then she seems to have regenerated at least once sometime between her initial meltdown over Rose’s pregnancy and what seems to be quite late in the process. 

From there, Pearl keeps the same form through Steven’s childhood (God, her body language in “Three Gems and a Baby”), into season 1a. 

If Greg saw her regenerate—likely more than once, given his familiarity with the process—that would have been somewhere in the few months before Steven was born. That must have been a, uh, rough period for her, huh. 

Dare I say, her regenerated form—after she realized Rose was going to be leaving her—to my eyes it’s coded as markedly less independent than her prior, somewhat with-the-times style. She becomes more, well, Pearlish. More delicate, reverting more to type. So her mental state…

For millennia, Pearl just sort of expected she and Rose would be together forever. Then in just a few blinks of her lifetime, she’s pushed to the periphery and Rose is about to die. And with that, suddenly Pearl takes on more of the appearance of a traditional Pearl: devoted, subservient. 

A Gem’s physical form is a manifestation of how they see themself—so it’s as if Pearl is asking, what did she do wrong? She must have strayed too far from her purpose. She dropped her guard, let a threat in, due to her lack of devotion. 

It’s like her very body is pleading by way of her subconscious, please, don’t go; I’ll be who I was supposed to be, see. I’ll always be here for you.

But it wasn’t enough, because it was never really about Pearl. 

Conservation of Trauma

  • Reading time:3 mins read

I appreciate that in Steven Universe violence is always a tragedy. Sometimes it’s necessary, even justified, but that doesn’t make it good. And there will always be consequences. Those who glorify it do so out of damage or ignorance, and it will eat them. The discussion is about cycles of abuse—in families, relationships, the broader social structure—but the show uses its ostensible format as an action-adventure series to subvert all the things we’re told are glorious and righteous, to assert that, no, actually, violence is just violence.

Take the “Stronger Than You” battle between Garnet and Jasper. On the surface it’s triumphant, an early high note for the show. And indeed Garnet was left without many other options. It was an act of self-defense. Jasper was never going to be reasoned with. Something like it had to happen, to prevent other violence. But that doesn’t make it innately virtuous. It still passed along trauma in unpredictable ways. It was necessary, and that’s the tragedy—because violence doesn’t cancel violence; it only mutates its form, maybe puts it out of sight and mind for a while. And boy, that keeps happening in this show—from thousands of years before its start, all the way to the end.

To an extent the Gem War was necessary. It redistributed trauma away from some of the most vulnerable, even as it ravaged all that survived. And the show only ever plays that with ambivalence, except through the eyes of characters who were clearly warped from the violence beyond the ability to cope. It’s a tragedy that it was necessary, and the consequences are endless.

Then all those themes that have been building up since 2013, they culminate in Future. Where would all the violence land, but in the lap of our central character? Including the fallout of Jasper’s history of war and insecurity, heightened to the point of mania by her battle with Garnet. All those millennia of hard-won victory and juggled, mutated trauma come home again, to be absorbed by a single target.

In other shows, the Perfect Steven reveal would be a cathartic triumph, a symbol of growth and success. Here it’s tragedy. It’s clearly wrong even before what happens. This is what violence has done to our boy; this is how it’s warped him. It’s the show’s message from the start, but now it’s personified so you can’t ignore it, much as the trans issues were brought to the forefront at the end of season five.

Abuse and neglect, they don’t just go away. They don’t evaporate when you stop looking at them. It’s like conservation of energy; all they do is transfer and change forms. They linger and fester until they manifest in some new unexpected form. The only way to stop the cycle is to acknowledge it, take a step, back, and show unconditional love.

Which is easy to say, of course. But all we can do is forge ahead, day by day, step by step, and try to show care where we can. And maybe one day it will be enough to make a change.

I’d rather be free from here

  • Reading time:2 mins read

The thing about this song, for me, is its dissociative quality. It’s basically about tuning out when you’re in a bad situation over which you have no control—abuse, neglect—and going to your happy (or less-unhappy) place. And Michalka sounds so numb here.

It’s a simple song. It’s short; there’s not much to it. The lyrics are direct, almost facile in their understatement. It’s hard to find something profound between the lines. All the pieces—there’s nothing here, practically. But combine that surrender with the exhaustion in the performance and the literal dissociation with Stevonnie splitting to harmonize with themself, and it comes off, of course this would be simple. When you’re in this kind of situation, there’s no room to try to be pretty or clever. You don’t expect to be heard at all. Just voicing the simplest of an idea is a struggle, as you mourn for a better life you don’t ever expect to see.

You tell yourself, I’m not supposed to feel anything. That’s not for me to do. Never betray anything of myself. Be good. Maybe they’ll leave me alone. But, I can’t help just… tuning out. Escaping to this part of me where they can’t follow. I can’t always force myself to be present in the face of all of this.

Sorry, but I’m not here right now.

An Icon of Revolution

  • Reading time:7 mins read

“Together Alone” is a strange episode, necessarily rushed by the time constraints of this final block of the original show and how much story the team needs to cover, yet laden with the bulk of the outsized thematic elements this last appendage brings forward into the show’s text as never before.

This is an odd episode in an odd story arc in one of television’s oddest shows. The pace and the structure, we can agree the show’s handled better—and the storyboards sure are rougher than anything else toward the end of the show (but then, every storyboarder has their strength…), and in that, there are some real angles of critical breakdown one could pursue. In some ways it’s easy to argue that “Together Alone” wastes its opportunity, but the ways in which that’s true are more subtle than I see people address. Likewise the parts where it hits the target are magnificent and crucial to the message of the whole 160-episode original series, yet largely unheralded. I’d have done much differently, yet where the episode works I’d have never thought of doing things the way they play out here. It impresses and frustrates me, and keeps making me want to think about it further

These eleven minutes are work of suspense. The savvy viewer knows exactly what’s going to happen from the title card, and so enters with a sense of doom and dismay. With this understanding, the unfolding enterprise is a matter of one damned thing after another, watching the pieces clunk inevitably into place, hoping against reason that someone, something somehow intervenes.

For long spans you’re just… waiting, as events play out, and so much of the takeaway is in how the episode passes that time with its Abrams-style awkward small talk, peeling away and compiling tiny observations of how things work here, how people think within this system where everyone is always just standing around, waiting for the inevitable.

We wait, and we steep in this empire of lies and denial and repression, where everyone furtively pretends they don’t know what “ffffun” is—they would never do anything improper—all the while haunted by a vision of Pink’s Pearl, bleached by conversion therapy for improper relations with her mistress. We see the overt transphobia against Garnet. The racism of a colonial society. This is where the full decadence of the empire—and how untenable and barely maintained it is as a system, all comes into play. The more denial that’s going on, the more that happens in the shadows that they pretend doesn’t exist. There are no homosexuals in Russia.

All this fear and propriety and this cycle of abuse, it doesn’t actually stamp out what it tries and claims to, because people remain people. What it manages is to maintain a certain paper-thin image, that everyone knows it’s a lie, but no one dares contradict. Like that central moment—subtle enough that I often see people glaze over it—where Yelp nervously glances at Bloop before she asserts that people don’t do… that sort of thing here, only a few minutes before Lemon Jade pulls her surprise focus.

We know Yellow Pearl is obstructive and difficult and nervous and vain, and lies constantly to keep order. Why do we imagine this key moment is different from anything else that has come out of her mouth ever? Especially with that delivery and body language? The way the two of them immediately look at each other—Yelp in a panic, Bloop like “You know.” Are they onto us? Nope, not gonna talk about that here. Doesn’t happen. Haha, what do you mean. That beat serves to establish the fragility of the society, how false all this imposed structure is—allowing the accidental moment of revolution at the ball to hit all the harder. Like, this is it. Everything is different now, there’s no maintaining the lies anymore.

Then the way Lemon Jade leaps to support, it’s played as a joke—but it’s really anything but. It’s the whole point. It’s our main indicator of this whole thing that we never quite see, this knowledge that our heroes aren’t alone, that this system doesn’t work, that revolutions can happen.

We don’t really see the consequence on-screen. People comment on how curious it is the Diamond mech smashes up all these buildings and bridges and stomps through the streets in CYM, and the only background Gem who seems aware is that one astonished Topaz outside Yellow’s chamber. Like, where is everyone? This is world-shattering stuff going on outside.

By the end of season five, the show was quite literally running on borrowed time (The final six episodes seem to be appropriated from the order of what would soon become Steven Universe Future.), so it does what it can, hits the vital moments and whittles down everything else. With just 88 minutes to sell a season’s worth of story, they consolidate and breeze by any larger issues and implications outside of the core cast.

Against all odds, the show more or less nails the landing, albeit at a breakneck speed. It’s really miraculous they got it to work at all, let alone as well as it does. Ideally, though, it needed a few more episodes to breathe, set up further context and meaning and character work; cement its themes, ground them in tangible emotions and character development, and manage the tension leading into the final moments.

“Legs from Here to Homeworld” is nuts, and could have developed better as two or more chunks, establishing the fragile nature of the CGs’ truce with the Diamonds and exploring Steven’s deep sense of responsibility and determination in the face of now more-latent bigotry. We needed at least one more episode before the ball to add to the build-up and to further establish the people living in this society and what they’re dealing with, and how they pretend that they don’t really feel about it.

A huge missing beat is a further bottle episode in Stevonnie’s holding cell. This is the perfect moment to pause and compile our lead characters as they roll toward the end. What the story calls for is deep personal discussion juxtaposed against rising society breakdown. Eleven roiling minutes of Stevonnie talking to themself in the dark as word spreads of the events at the ball and they start to hear at first vague signs then riots and confusion break out around them. They sit helpless, locked up for who knows how long on this alien world, unsure how to balance introspection with personal survival with worry for everything outside of their grasp. Talking through self-blame, settling on confidence in who they are and their right to exist. As the world breaks through even into their tiny cell, the despair and anxiety of failure turn to a growing realization they may have kicked off something big and the uncertainty over whether or not that’s a good thing.

This is the discussion we’re missing, because there just isn’t time for that kind of build-up. The one place where all of that really breaks through to the screen is in “Together Alone.” And of course Stevonnie’s presence here as the inciting element of this revolution—just by virtue of their unashamed existence—is kind of the centerpiece that the show has been building toward since episode seven. They anchor all the trans elements, the repression. They are the ideal, largely innocent version of the experience Rose wishes she could have had. The thesis statement of what could be. They’re not exactly what Steven asked for way back in season 1a, but they are a femme-presenting giant enby. Of course they would bring down tyranny by example in the moment that everyone else gets to see what they’re missing in life, and that it’s actually possible.

“Together Alone” is a clumsy episode, burdened with more than it can handle. But gosh is it ever crucial. Just take a step away from plot for a moment, and appreciate the sheer cosmic audacity of this revolution, overlaid with the creeping horror and tragedy of the personal story. It couldn’t happen any other way. The truth was going to come out, and it was always going to change everything.

Punitive Narrative Justice

  • Reading time:4 mins read

Redemption is a reductive kind of moralism. 

Zuko doesn’t really have a redemption arc, because he was never “bad.” The Diamonds don’t really have a redemption arc, because they never become “good.” Redemption is a weird external moralistic concept that has nothing to do with individual character development or lack thereof.

To put it another way: The Last Airbender never condemns Zuko, so forgiveness isn’t the point of the story; and Steven Universe never forgives the Diamonds, because nothing could ever make up for what they did.

This isn’t to say that the characters don’t change their behavior for the better. What I’m criticizing is a binary and extrinsic reading of morality in relation to narrative function, as opposed to an intrinsic reading of situational character motivation. 

Redemption is an externally imposed concept that doesn’t allow for agency or intention, but rather describes a functional narrative approach to character. It suggests: 

  1. an innate change of a character’s essence, 
  2. to serve the demands of another’s morality…

… which is a simplistic understanding of psychology, social dynamics, and… just, judgment. Really, redemption is all about judgment, which lies in the perspective of the narrative voice. It’s an external thing, where the story passes sentence on characters and demands that they change who they are in order to suit its morality and make up for their past sins, and to thereby be forgiven by the story. Which is a super basic concept of humanity that doesn’t apply in either case above.

Zuko is shown from pretty close to the start as a victim; he’s not a Bad Guy who Turns Good. His arc is a matter of self-realization and emergence from an abuse narrative, and its resolution involves reaching a common understanding, not repaying moral debt.

And the Diamonds, they are never forgiven. They change their behavior out of argument for how it’s not helping them achieve their own individual intentions. Even at the end, they are shown to be extremely self-centered characters who have difficulty understanding anything outside of how it affects them directly. Steven tolerates them at a stretch, once they change their behavior enough that they no longer pose a threat to others. But what they did will never be okay, no matter what they do, and the story makes no pretense of balancing the scales. 

Compare to, say, something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the characters of Angel or Spike. In the case of Spike the protagonists stick a microchip in him, taking away his agency, until he gets used to behaving the way they want him to. With Angel, the change mostly happens before we meet him. But the notion is that they’re Bad characters who become Good, and then feel sorry and try to make amends for what they’ve done. Similarly Missy, in the Peter Capaldi era of Doctor Who, undergoes a redemption after serving penitence for years in solitary confinement and out of a desire to please the Doctor and try to play out his concept of morality. 

In all cases, there’s this notion of penitence and turning from Evil. With Spike the change comes after the microchip, which changes his behavior until he becomes accustomed to the new way of being, even after it’s removed. It’s a punitive, judgmental, carceral sort of a moralism. The idea is to show people how Bad they are until they are ashamed of themselves and they want to stop being Bad—”Go to your room and think about what you did”—all of which ignores the complexities of how and why people do things based on their understanding and their systemic context, and treats others as lacking a degree of agency independent of those passing judgment on them and their own individual interests.

You are not a person, the redemption narrative asserts; you are a story function within my life. 

Refusal

  • Reading time:5 mins read

So Maya Petersen recently tweeted out the obvious yet previously unvoiced behind-the-scenes intention for Peridot to be Steven Universe’s aroace representation. This shouldn’t be a surprise, particularly given Peri’s role in Rebecca Sugar’s “all about fusion” children’s book a while back. (“And if you don’t want to fuse… that’s cool, too.”) But, of course, this admission has led to discourse.

There are now a hundred and twelve long and angry rants in all the usual places about why making Peridot aroace is somehow a bad thing. One of the more creative is the notion that because we’re using fusion as a way to illustrate this, it suggests that autistic people are incapable of forming meaningful relationships of any sort. Which, just…

Yikes.

I feel like people push back way too hard against the reductive reading of fusion-as-sex, to the point where it’s functionally meaningless. “It’s not sex,” people assert, “it’s just any kind of relationship at all!” And, no. That overcorrects to the point where if anything it would be more accurate to just shrug and say, okay, they’re all fucking.

Fusion is about intimacy. It’s about being so in-harmony with another person that the boundaries disappear and you might as well be one. Ergo, the dancing. In our touch-starved culture it’s super hard to draw the line between intimacy and sex, to the point that intimacy is often used as a synonym for sex. People often don’t seem to understand there are other kinds of intimacy.

To say that fusion is just any old relationship reduces the metaphor to the point where it might as well not even exist, all out of a fear of coming anywhere near a discussion of fucking or an inability to separate fucking from intimacy.

Not every relationship is going to be an intimate one. That would be nuts. Not every intimate relationship is going to be a sexual one. That would be unfortunate.

As a highly sex-averse (and even touch-averse) aroace person myself, I see zero functional problem with the use of fusion as a metaphor when discussing a lack of sexual or romantic attraction. A person can have lots of kinds of relationships without a desire for intimacy—be it romantic or sexual or anything else in nature. And likewise in the show, people can have relationships without fusing. Peridot and Steven have a relationship, a close and special one, and they are unlikely to fuse on purpose. There are boundaries, that Peridot is unlikely to feel motivated to cross.

With an understanding of Peridot’s intended representation, the metaphor continues to work exactly as deigned.

There’s also a popular thread where people like to leap on Peri’s obvious autistic coding as basis for why any little thing under the moon is problematic when applied to her in particular, but. Again, speaking as an autistic person, this all seems… correct?

Yeah, an inherent problem with representation is that everyone is different so no single representative is going to completely map with an individual’s experience. But, they shouldn’t have to. That’s absurd. Not everything is about me, or about you, or about the next person in particular.

I’m reminded of how Wikipedia editors seem to think it’s impossible to summarize Doctor Who without diving deep into the character’s allergy to aspirin. It’s crucially important to understanding who the character is, they will insist.

Ideally there wouldn’t just be one aroace-coded character in the show, and they wouldn’t also be an autistic-coded character, and so on and so on. But, let’s take a step back and consider: there is an aroace-coded character, and there is a positively portrayed autistic-coded character. Both of which are vanishingly unusual. And the way they’re depicted is broadly accurate and sympathetic, both within the show’s language and in terms of what’s being represented. Not in every way for every autistic person, or every aroace person, but I am also not every autistic person or every aroace person, and though I shouldn’t expect my experience to mirror anyone else’s completely I think I have a few relevant things to say about my own.

Like Stevonnie or Garnet, Peridot isn’t perfect, idealized representation. She’s just roughly accurate, literary-coded representation in a field where even that is difficult to find. There’s nothing wrong with her depiction, with her coding, or the continued use of the endlessly complicated metaphor of fusion to explain something almost never explained in mainstream contemporary fiction. I’m aroace, and her aversion to intimacy is accurate to my experience. I’m autistic, and her collection of obsessions and blind spots is cartoonish but also accurate. The intersection of the two is something that I can easily identify with.

Not everyone will, and not everyone has to. And that’s okay. That doesn’t mean they’re doing it wrong. It doesn’t mean ill intent. It just means that everyone is different.

And that we really need to understand what intimacy is, in this culture.

Garnet is Trans

  • Reading time:6 mins read

This being the Internet, I’ve been getting some pushback in the wake of Unleash the Light, and my reference to Demantoid and Pyrope as cis-Garnets, much like Hessonite. 

I mean. Look. I get it, cisters. You’re not used to looking at anything except through a binary cishet lens. But this is a show substantially by non-straight, trans, or gender-diverse creators—from the top on down. It’s got layers and layers of metaphor that it can use in different situations to talk about different things. And one of the things it’s always gone out of its way to talk about is diverse identities. 

Fusion is there to talk about a million and six subjects; some of them broad and universal, some extremely specific and delicate. From a human perspective Stevonnie really should be anyone’s first hint that a fusion of two different people is going to create some existential issues around identity and presentation, but it goes much deeper than them.

Gems don’t have sex or gender the way humans do; they have type. For the purpose of storytelling, Gem type stands in for all manner of social structures: class, race, sex, gender. The dynamics are different—due to different biology (if that term even applies to a Gem) and systems of power—yet familiar. How the metaphor applies, to talk about real-life issues, depends on what the story wants to address at the time.

Cross-Gem fusion is undeniably queer; Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship makes that as clear as possible. They’re queer in human terms because to us they both present female; they’re queer in Gem terms because they’re crossing type boundaries. To be homogeneous is to be straight—following the plan of society and their created intention—and to be heterogenous is to stray from the path. 

There’s way more to unpack just in that parallel, but again the metaphor is multifaceted. When two Gems fuse cross-type, they create a new person—a person who is not defined by a designation or role on emergence, but who finds their own name and identity. As it happens, Gem names and identities are hard to extract from types. So, they pick a new type. We see the thought process in action when Steven and Amethyst first fuse, and the Gem who would be Smoky first comes into being. 

When Ruby and Sapphire chose to permanently fuse, they decided they were a Garnet. Which is totally their choice, and is great and all. The thing is, there are other Garnets. More to the point, there are assigned-at-emergence Garnets, like Hessonites, Pyropes, Demantoids: Garnets who were made to be Garnets from the start. As it happens, our Garnet—CG Garnet—looks a heck of a lot like a “natural” Garnet. She has a similar build, the same general hair. Garnet is a Garnet because she has decided that’s what and who she is, not because she was told that’s what she was. Which is to say, Garnet is trans

Up until the Homeworld appendix to season five, the point is fairly subtle. Unless the question of “natural” Garnets leaps into your mind, or you dwell really hard on the implications of Stevonnie, you may not think too hard about what it means to create a whole new gender-of-sorts. You may not even clock different Gem types as partially a matter of gender. You may overlook the color scheme of Cotton Candy Garnet, which in hindsight is… potentially the least subtle symbolism in the entire goddamned show. But I really don’t know how it’s possible to watch “Together Alone” and miss this point.

By the end of the show, it’s not even subtext anymore. It’s just text. It’s just the show, explicitly telling you, Garnet is trans and that makes Homeworld Gems uncomfortable. The point is so on-the-nose that it would be hilarious if it weren’t horrific. 

Yet, in that, it’s also amazing. After five seasons of general tolerance on Earth, our first official visit to Homeworld comes wrapped in scoffing at Garnet’s identity and consistently misgendering Steven. It comes with a story of conversion therapy, centering around Pink Diamond’s original Pearl with whom she so inappropriately dabbled. Even the most irredeemable human, Kevin, stopped short of misgendering Stevonnie, because come on, what kind of a monster would do that? Well, a monster like a Diamond, as it happens.

That is the threat of Homeworld. The “She’s Gone!” segment is, like everything in the show, a complicated and imperfect metaphor, but the surface-level trans allegory is clear enough to have launched a thousand articles, in the mainstream as well as the queer press.

Dialing back, though, we have Garnet.

In a broader sense it is important that Garnet be trans inasmuch as her transness seems to have inspired Rose Quartz to fully accept and commit to her own transness. Except for Rose, it wasn’t even a matter of fusion. Her becoming was a matter of sheer personal will and desire. 

Even if Steven didn’t exist, the “She’s GONE!” scene would still apply. Rose is Rose; she’s not Pink Diamond. Gem types, again, are as much a metaphor for sex and gender as they are race and class. Rose has lived for millennia as a Quartz. Everyone accepts her as a Quartz. As even Blue begins to cotton to around the first act of “Change Your Mind,” Pink was never really a Diamond at all, and every effort to make her behave like one only ever made her miserable.

Low-key, the entire story of Steven Universe is about Rose’s fight to live as the person who she chose to be, not the person she was created to be—and about the unresolved issues she left behind from that struggle, that were beyond her ability to cope with. For all her intentions and all the change she went through, there was still something she lacked—and until she met Greg, she could never quite put a finger on what that was.

To fix all her problems would take an even greater metamorphosis. One that slightly waters down the allegory at the climax of “Change Your Mind,” but that contains within it layers of transformation and resolution that can apply to many more aspects of life than any 1:1 representation could achieve.

There are lots of kinds of change we go through. And lots of kinds of change we can make in the world. 

The first brick at Stonewall came from a trans woman, Marsha P. Johnson. As it happens, Garnet was also [to dubious canonicity] there. The same way she was at the moment that Rose’s whole universe changed—the day she realized what she could be.

One Specific Forever

  • Reading time:4 mins read

Amongst its twined majesties, I think paramount for me about “Alone Together” is the tone and atmosphere that it sets, pairing its heady thematic material with the heightened hues of an eternal twilight. You can almost hear the air, and smell the light. It’s such a specific feel.

It’s a heartbeat, stretched into hours then compressed to 11 minutes. It’s one of those fleeting moments where time nevertheless stops, that stay with you for the rest of your life. The kind of formative experience that you wish you could go back and live in forever.

Katie Mitroff’s frequent point-of-view and reversal shots work overtime to pull you into this headspace, and hold you there until the ride is over—making you a part of the fusion, as it were. They’re so emotionally specific, and intense. That specificity is important.

The episode plays out like a memory. It’s specific in its emotion, vague on the detail; it skips around and rambles and devolves. All of that hinges on the impossible sensory detail. There’s no way it could be twilight for that long, or all those events could fit into that time—and there’s almost too much that happens, like it can’t all be memory of the same evening. It’s such a disorienting rush to watch and process, much as it would have been to live through. And yet, it’s beautiful. Every breath of it haunts our senses, competing with the last. After eleven minutes you feel like you’ve watched a breakout independent film, or relived a pivotal experience you can’t believe you’d forgotten—one drenched in a very particular shade of purple, that hums in the near darkness.

As ever, Steven Universe paints in sound as much as in digital wash, and there are long periods in this episode without dialogue. Even when characters speak, they hesitate, allowing the scenery into their pauses. That endless purgatory growl of the ocean, eerily present in every episode, rarely claims more space than it does here.

Around these beats, aivi & surasshu somehow fit six and a half minutes of original music. Each track blocks out a different step in the spiraling mood of the piece, that works together with the intervening silence and ambiance. The whole third act is overlaid with this increasingly oppressive dance music, as the experience spins out of control and anything like a desirable range of stimulation. There’s no silence here. No room for reflection or joy. And somehow it all sounds just as purple as the sky.

“Alone Together” is some kind of temporal anomaly. I feel like I could live a life in that episode—and that I sort of do, each time that I see it. It’s as subjective as the show gets, which is some achievement for a show as steeped in metaphor as Steven Universe. Its closest runner-up may be its own nightmare reflection of “Together Alone.” Both episodes are irrational, but involve very different experiences; the latter nightmare twists and corrupts the fond memory, turning a moment of euphoria and self-discovery into one of shame and fear. Which, as a piece of storytelling, sure is something.

In an earlier pass on this topic I incorrectly guessed that Rebecca Sugar herself—who receives a rare co-boarding credit on this episode—was responsible for the point-of-view shots and their reversals, due to the specificity and intimacy of those moments. On reflection, though, Katie Mitroff makes total sense, considering her work on “We Need to Talk” and “The Test,” which contain very similar held shots.

As it happens, Sugar’s main contribution is toward the center of the episode, with the Crystal Gems’ responses to Stevonnie and the now-iconic “twilight run” sequence, an animation that further involved the show’s most dynamic regular boarder, Jeff Liu. Add in a moshing animation from Ian Jones-Quarty, whose direct involvement with the show seems minimal after the first few episodes, and it really feels like they pulled in every hand they could to massage this episode into form.

With four years of hindsight it should be clear how pivotal “Alone Together” is for the show as a whole, but it’s becoming just as clear they were aiming for posterity at the time. If there’s one moment of the show that was to last forever, it would be this one.

And in the long run, it very well may be.

Galaxy Mind

  • Reading time:6 mins read

People who feel very certain about the world feel very uncomfortable about nuance. And whatever they feel uncomfortable about quickly becomes the enemy.

One of the main things that Steven Universe serves to talk about is toxic behavior: where it comes from on an individual and structural level, and what to do about it. Every character on the show is carrying some grief or trauma, that affects their behavior. The show threads the needle of sympathy for the person and confronting the behavior, over and over. It’s delicate. So of course, people looking for black-and white, either-or answers to the questions that they specifically ask are going to have difficulty.

Take “Cry for Help,” the episode that first drew me in. This whole discussion that opens up here, and lasts for a while, it’s heavy as all hell. Consent is a constant theme with the show, and here Pearl coerced Garnet into fusion. It’s, you know—there are no good or bad people. There are good and bad actions. And, there’s trust. Most violence and abuse comes not from some evil bogeyman but from people close to you, who you generally trust—which is what this episodes serves to dive into.

Another way to put it is that Steven Universe focuses in on systemic violence and the way that it manifests in behavior, placing culpability for one’s actions as a part of that system rather than a value judgment on the individual—which we’re still having a bunch of trouble talking about as a society, and which seems to confuse the fuck out of people when you bring it up.) You want real change, the show argues, vilifying the individual won’t get you there. Hold them to account, but to truly fix anything you need to trace back and smash the system that led to the behavior in the first place.

A mind-blowing topic for a kids’ show, right? Even adult-targeted TV would prefer to avoid this discussion. So of course, the response from the Discourse Web more or less amounts to accusations that Rebecca Sugar somehow condones rape. Because discussing a subject in any shape or form means that you’re encouraging it, apparently.

https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6v7eyj

The character of Stevonnie—a non-binary, intersex character formed from the (basically) platonic relationship between two teenagers—is one of the most nuanced and radical elements of the show, representing puberty, first loves, gender discovery, consent—so of course they’re the target of a million bad-faith hot takes, that make them an example of everything depraved going on in our society today.

Of particular focus is how every character in Stevonnie’s debut episode episode objectifies them, as if this is evidence of the show’s awfulness rather than part of the actual point of the episode, that it serves to talk about. Part of the whole deal here, that the show continues to talk about long-term, is the dark turn the story takes halfway through, when what had been an innocent exploration of self and new love and so on gets weird when they realize the new way other people are responding to them. (In real life, find a girl who hasn’t had to deal with this shit starting around… roughly the age that Connie actually is at this point in the story.) This leads them into an anxiety attack—a moment of weakness that in turn a skeevy douchebag uses as an invitation to intrude on their space, making them even more uncomfortable. The episode demonstrates this as a Bad Thing; a violation. An example of What Not To Do, Ever. And, what can happen.

“Alone Together” is a thematically dense, complicated piece of television. It fits so much into eleven minutes, covers so many important topics so effortlessly, all at the same time, it’s hard to know where to begin. Of course some people feel weird; this is revolutionary storytelling. It’s bold and confident in saying things that nobody else is saying, that dearly need to be said. Revolutions make people uncomfortable.

It’s frankly astonishing how well Steven Universe handles the uncomfortable topics it raises, and it’s so important for doing so. Thematically and structurally it works more like literature than typical television. But, people who are eager to react don’t have that patience.

“It’s not helpful to pin all evil on some external bogeyman,” the show says. “Anyone can be hurtful, and we all are responsible for our own behavior.”

The reactionary seethes in reply. “Only a bogeyman would say such a monstrous thing!”

When you ask people to look at their own behavior, a divide will open up and half of the audience will flip its shit. People who assume bad faith will erupt in their own geysers of bad faith and intone like a banshee, rejecting the idea that maybe they missed a beat somewhere. It’s this bottled reactionary impulse, just waiting for the right excuse. This is the highway that people use to accuse the show, and by extension its creators, of all manner of bizarre, extreme things, not limited to but including actual fascism.

(This is in response to a queer Jewish woman and majority non-white cast and crew. One… suspects there may be other, unspoken motives at play here.)

Some of the most galaxy-brain takes on the show involve expressions of rage that its story takes the angle of trying to carefully dismantle a complex, violent system from its roots rather than barging in and selectively killing people, expecting that will solve all the problems. That, combined with the notion that no one is good or bad—people do good things, bad things, bad things for good reasons, good things for bad reasons, and none of this needs to be morally gray—so that you can’t point to any one person and say, “they’re the villain,” causes great Online Anger.

People don’t like to hear that they’re asking the wrong question, that they’re looking at the world all wrong, and that’s the only answer the show has to give. About pretty much everything. As I say, its whole attitude is revolutionary. Which is why it freaks people out so much.