“I had to use you to make me feel strong, but I don’t care about that now. I see a tower built out of my mistakes, and it all comes crashing down.”
—Amethyst, “Cry for Help”
Hindsight is 20/20 with a show like Steven Universe. Every detail is meticulously plotted, from the lighthearted breather episodes to the serious ones about war.
To summarize, Steven Universe is a speculative fiction cartoon about a boy who’s half-Gem, half-human. Gems are rock-based aliens from another planet, and Steven lives with several of them since they’re all family and the survivors of a devastating war. As he learns to live up to his mother’s legacy as a military hero and leader, he also has to fight the sins of the past, and for a better future.
We are approaching another Steven Universe arc, and I hope that the show lasts for a few more years because we need animation that talks about rebelling against arbitrary conservative authority that engages in genocide on a regular basis. The arc premieres on December 17 under the moniker “Diamond Days.” We also got a teaser that bodes of uncertainty. And this arc may carry on the themes of bodily consent that the show regularly discusses.
We shouldn’t have to put this, but just in case…
The Crystal Gems and Fusion
Fusion, or two gems merging to become one, is the best representation of consent that we can see. As Garnet reveals, when two Gems fuse, they have to understand how their internal baggage may affect the whole; we see this in “Mindful Education” when the fusion Stevonnie sees hallucinations of their past mistakes, and falls from their training arena. When Garnet un-fuses, it’s either a red flag that one of her Gems is disagreeing with the other, or wants to make a point in a serious situation.
One important lesson that Steven learns is that you cannot lie to someone about your reasons for fusing, or use it as a power grab. Fusion is an intimate gesture of trust, that leads to your minds and bodies melding. Amethyst and Pearl cause trouble, for example, when they want to fuse with Garnet, who is “made of love.” While Amethyst is upfront about her immature desire to get the power high from that love, Pearl hides her desire to fuse behind a deception of needing to find an enemy Gem, Peridot. Garnet tells her off when Steven and Amethyst bust Pearl and try to break the news gently. Then we have Malachite, a toxic fusion born between a vengeful Jasper and a terrified Lapis. Lapis takes control of the fusion to imprison herself and Jasper, and admits afterward that while it was a horrible experience, she misses Jasper. Jasper, in the meantime, begs for Lapis to fuse again because she enjoyed their unhealthy relationship. Lapis has to turn down the addiction to move forward and grow past her baggage.
The Crystal Gems and Autonomy
We see a running gag in seasons 3 and 4 of Gems making off with humans. As Greg recalls Rose disappeared with baby Sour Cream while Greg was babysitting the latter, and let the infant climb on the Funland Ferris Wheel. The Crystal Gems themselves kidnapped a baby Steven when they mistakenly assumed that he would turn back into his mother, Rose. Gems at first don’t understand that Steven is not Rose, and he will never be their leader. At least, he won’t be the same leader that Rose was.
In this universe, isolation does not equal respect. The Crystal Gems knew that humans need their own lives, but didn’t understand that humans would like to learn more about the mysterious aliens that saved them thousands of years ago, and the others that would kidnap them at the blink of an eye. We see this blind eye when Mayor Dewey confronts the Gems about causing a power outage, and Pearl dismissively says that humans were fine without electricity thousands of years ago. Even Steven thinks this is a tad insensitive, and not just because he can’t microwave his breakfast. The Crystal Gems get better about it, but they have a long way to go.
At first, the Gems’ isolation comes from a lack of understanding, and a need to keep their dangerous missions separate from fragile humans. Unfortunately, one trade-off of this isolation is that the humans don’t know how to handle the crises of Homeworld invasions apart from evacuating, and the Gems don’t know how to move on from the trauma of war or seeing most of their brethren turned into mindless monsters. In Season Five, after the Diamonds engineer human kidnapping, Beach City residents demand a better emergency response from their mayor. Dewey has to retire when his opponent points out that the community needs to work with the Crystal Gems to create a better plan for when the Diamonds return with their armies and soldiers. This pays off when the Diamonds crash Garnet’s wedding reception, and Mayor Nanefua successfully evacuates the entire town so they avoid the battle damage.
Greg’s Consent with Rose
One issue that the show glosses over is that Rose lied to Greg about who she was and then bore his child before dying and leaving him and the Gems as Steven’s guardians. Greg says it’s okay after Ruby tells him the truth, but it’s unclear if what Rose did was okay. While she came to respect Greg, and trust him to lead her growth, she still hid an important part of her past. Knowing that your lover fought a war that led to most of her friends dying is one thing; knowing she was a runaway matriarch with intense powers that led a rebellion to atone for wiping out organic life is quite another.
In fiction, we have grey area about if a person can truly give consent in a loving situation if they lie about their identity. Greg, for his part, doesn’t want his son to have these worries. As he puts it to Steven, it doesn’t matter to him who Rose was or what she did. Like her, he changed his name and left his family to chase his dreams. His parents didn’t support his music career and Cousin Andy isn’t the nicest pilot in town. On the surface, his story is similar to Rose’s except that unlike her, he didn’t have someone like Pearl to look out for him, or someone like Garnet that he needed to protect. Marty as his manager was sleazy, corrupt, and inefficient. Greg, while dating Rose, mentions that he had to learn to take care of himself, because Rose didn’t understand about humans enough to protect him from the mundane fears like getting enough to eat or staying warm in the winter. He eventually would have Steven to protect, but raising a son is different from fighting alongside a friend.
The issue of Rose’s lie comes from how Steven is half-human, half-Gem, and Greg doesn’t know what different care a baby like that will need. Neither do the Crystal Gems, so everyone panics when baby Steven’s gem glows for the first time. Steven grows like a normal human for a few years and then stops aging. He has immense healing powers that fluctuate with his confidence, and a shield that he has to use in battle. Greg suffers anxiety attacks and panic on learning his son has to fight for the Earth because no other human except Connie can. If Pink had simply talked with him about who she really was and what Steven may receive, then maybe Greg would have fewer grey hairs. In any case, the show does make it clear that Rose shouldn’t have lied so much, because that many lies cause harm in the long run.
Homeworld Gems do not understand consent, mainly with fusing and autonomy. Gems tend to see each other and organic life beings as commodities, not individuals that deserve expression. Jasper expressly mentions that every Gem has a purpose, and going against it disrupts social order. She doesn’t understand when Peridot tries to explain that lacking a purpose gives her freedom to explore who she wants to be, rather than what she has to be. As for autonomy, Yellow Diamond mentions offhand that White Diamond will bubble the others for millennia if they show insubordination.
Lack of autonomy means lack of empathy, as we see with the intergalactic human zoo. Pearl mentions that Blue Diamond created the zoo when Pink Diamond said she didn’t want to destroy all the organic life on Earth. Blue—while providing for the humans’ needs—did not understand that Pink wanted to spare the humans and provide them freedom. It’s especially ironic when Blue kidnaps Greg to save him from what she thinks is an impending apocalypse, and Greg’s pleas go unheard. Greg then messes up the zoo’s utopia by refusing to “choosen” any of the humans there for a mating ritual, because he only has eyes for his departed Rose. Even these humans, childlike and easily pleased, break down because they don’t understand that Greg has the right to refuse.
As for fusion, its purpose is for Gems to become stronger in battle, and larger. Rubies fuse into a behemoth to take down enemies, while Topazes fuse to capture enemies and muffle their screams. (Topazes give me nightmares after I saw them the first time in action.) Homeworld cannot conceive of other purposes for fusing; the courts frown on different types of Gems coming together, even for understandable reasons. If anything, Homeworld Gems may worry about brethren who fuse for too long and run the risk of permanent mind damage.
Garnet changes the game with her fusion of love. When Garnet emerges, as a result of a Ruby attempting to save her Sapphire, they are a product of the desire to protect someone that they love. In Ruby’s case, she was trying to protect Sapphire from a rebel cutting her down, and for Sapphire it was to protect a Ruby from a Diamond that would shatter her. We eventually learn that other Gems like Rhodonite have fused and fled for their lives because their love is that strong. In Garnet’s case, she was lucky to have Earth as her refuge, while Rhodonite has to hide in Homeworld’s shadows. When Pearl recaps Rose’s real origin to the present Crystal Gems, she mentions that Rose seeing Garnet’s fusion made of love changed Rose’s plans to save the Earth. Initially, Pink’s plan was to sabotage the colony and scare all the other Homeworld Gems away, to leave the organic life in peace. Garnet showed her that they could make Earth a place of love and refuge, to take in all the Gems without a purpose who desires freedom. Pink would do it, because she also became a refugee.
Rose Changing Her Ideas
Pink Diamond was never taught how to properly express physical affection. As we see in the flashback in “Jungle Moon,” Yellow Diamond only grabs her to wrest her away from the controls that can contact a drop ship. Blue Diamond only touches Pink in “Can’t Go Back” to attempt to reassure her that she is safe from Rose Quartz, not knowing that they are the same. Pink Diamond, as a result, is very affection-starved and becomes a cuddle bug with everyone else. As Rose Quartz, she is physically affectionate with the Gems that she meets and wants to spread her kindness to them. She hugs Quartz soldiers that emerges from the ground, hugs Pearl in thanks for giving her the idea to visit the colony in disguise, and later tosses flowers playfully. When Pearl apologizes for picking her up and attempting to fuse with her, Rose orders her to never stop and returns the affection.
Things change when Pink sees organic life firsthand. She recalls the conversation that Yellow Diamond had with a Nephrite about wiping out life on another moon, and realizes that her colony will destroy the humans, plants and animals on Earth. At first, Pink understandably reasons with her sisters that the life on Earth is beautiful and worth saving. Blue and Yellow don’t understand; Blue creates a human zoo, taking away the humans’ autonomy, and Yellow orders Pink to complete the colony or they will take over and finish it for her. Pink decides to rebel as Rose Quartz, because they may boss her around, but they won’t be able to track down one lower-class Gem who flits around the Earth.
Mind that Rose isn’t perfect about respecting autonomy or consent; she poofs and bubbles Bismuth when the latter wants to use the Breaking Point to shatter the Diamonds, only to later take inspiration from Bismuth to fake her death. Rose also puts Pearl under a Geas to never reveal that Rose was once Pink Diamond, a decision that Pearl regrets when she cannot tell Steven the truth. But she gets better over time, and that improvement is important. If not for it, then Steven never would have been born.
Rose finds out the hard way that if she disrespects a human’s autonomy, she runs the risk of being as insensitive as her sisters were. She treated her human lovers as amusements rather than beings, as Pearl snidely remarked to Greg. Greg refused to believe it until he witnessed Rose’s insensitivity first hand. When he attempts to fuse with her, to understand his lover better, Rose laughs and thinks that he’s just being funny. Greg has to yell at her to treat him like an actual person and all but says that while she has flaws, she is worth loving. This invites Rose to reciprocate the respect, and the desire to properly mature. Though she then goes the other extreme, in letting a baby climb on a Ferris Wheel without realizing that he could fall and get hurt, she does inspire Greg to seek more independence and grow up. Seeing that she was growing and changing, and that humans grow and change, would inspire her to have a baby in turn.
Rose’s changing views on autonomy and consent finally come to a head when Steven finds another videotape she made to someone named “Nora.” Greg explains that they didn’t know if Steven would be a boy or girl, so Nora was their alternate name. He also reassures Steven that Rose had no plans for Steven to take her place or fulfill a great destiny. Rose wants Steven to live his life, with freedom and joy, and without needing a purpose to fulfill. This backfires, because Steven has to live up to his mother’s image, but the intentions matter because they conclude Rose’s arc and growth.
Ominous Things to Come
The Diamond Days arc shows signs of both themes coming to a head. In the preview, Steven is shown wearing Pink Diamond’s outfit and trying to carry out her duties. White Diamond, in the meantime, has only seen Steven as her departed daughter, and refuses to listen to “her.” Steven remains optimistic that he can change her mind, but he has failed before.
It gives me the creeps to see Steven wearing that outfit, since he can’t shape-shift clothes the way other Gems can, which means that someone had to make the outfit for him. What’s more, Steven has to fit back into his mother’s role, the exact thing she didn’t want for him or for her. He loses the autonomy that he had on Earth, all to convince White Diamond to purify the Corrupted Gems that the Diamonds accidentally created. The same happens to Pearl, who once more becomes a Diamond object, and the others don’t even seem to have permission to talk with Steven or see him as royalty.
I am excited to see what the creators do with this direction. We know Steven will be okay, because he’s Steven, but we don’t know “how” he will get out of this predicament. The Diamonds have a lot to learn, and unlike Pink don’t have the willingness to explore their flaws or their systematic biases. It’s going to take more than one starchild like Steven to fix a broken system about autonomy, but he is going to try. And we are going to try and not scream.