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 meâ€”in a way I had trouble identifying.
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.
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 elseâ€”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.
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.
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?
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 Pearlâ€”like Steven, like Amethystâ€”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.