Steven Universe is a show on Cartoon Network in which three space alien superheroines defend the Earth from the troublesome remnants of an ancient invasion and the impending peril of a new invasion. If you’ve seen the show you might be thinking, “Is this one of those articles that over-examines some perfectly innocent and gleeful children’s cartoon?” To which the answer is, yes, probably, but I hope it’s at least interesting.
I say I might be over-thinking it because at first glance, this is a pretty standard, perhaps even too perfect children’s cartoon. It’s full of fun and jokes and innocence and young love and, “You can help more when you’re grown” followed almost immediately by, “I’m already more grown than they give me credit for.” Ordinary childhood wish fulfillment sort of stuff. If the goal of the cast a crew was to create a cartoon that kids would watch and love, then they succeeded. All the boxes are ticked off.
One small personal note: Steven Universe actually reminds me of my own childhood because of a bizarre instance of synchronicity. When I was a kid, playing the Palladium Books role-playing game, Heroes Unlimited, one of the things I liked to do was actually use all the random character creation tables, that everyone else just skipped or picked from, even if it created some really strange heroes, like one time, a teenage mutant ninja hippopotamus, who despite being built like a hippo, was still as stealthy as a ninja. One month (campaigns rarely lasted more than a few months) I ended up with a crystalline alien heroine who had escaped her rigidly hierarchical interstellar civilization in which caste was determined by what sort of precious stone you seemed to be composed of. Every time the characters in Steven Universe interact with “Homeworld Gems” I get a flash of a reminder, a sort of involuntary memory, like a character in a Proust novel, about what it was like to be that boy with no responsibilities more pressing than making up stories of super heroics with my friends.
But I might not be over-thinking it, because there are elements in the cartoon that seem as is they were lifted from horror stories. I’m thinking of the character called Lapis Lazuli. Lapis was broken, literally, her gem, her most basic expression of who she is, was cracked and turned into a tool, a mirror that can record and replay sights and sounds. And she was stuck like this for thousands of years! It is unclear how much hope she had that she could ever be restored, but I’m thinking not much.
Think about what that would be like. Did you ever read Tribe 8? I suppose it would be like sundering. Tribe 8 is a role-playing game published by Dream Pod 9. It’s basically a zombie apocalypse on PCP. Hyper-mega-zombies protect humans from normal zombies so they can use the humans as raw materials, mostly to renew themselves, but also to make weapons, or architecture out of living humans. They make buildings out of humans that are still alive, that still respond and provide pleasure to the inhabitants of the buildings. A person can be turned into a wall, and left with no hope of ever being restored, forced to respond in the way that the hyper-mega-zombie desires, constantly praying for death. It still haunts me.
Also, what does Lapis Lazuli imply for the other gems that the Crystal Gems fight, capture and recover? The Heaven Beetle obviously seems sentient. It has a little bed, and a little book. It plays the bongos! For an old hippy like me, playing bongos is a huge step towards passing a Turing test! I own and play bongos regularly. And what about the bird that protected the Heaven Beetle? It seemed to be composed of dozens of crystal shards. Were they people once? Were they sentient? This is a serious question because gems (meaning these space aliens) are made in a process that ruins the planet that they are harvested from, so they don’t just happen casually. They are intentionally created at great cost.
When the other gems found the mirror that Lapis was imprisoned in, they had no concept that the gem that powered it was a person. Is this normal in their culture, to be stripped of your personhood and reduced to a device? When Steven expressed a desire to help the gem trapped and forced to power the mirror, they acted like it would probably be a monster, a horrible criminal, or dangerously insane from it’s millennia of debasing servitude. What kind of a monstrous society do the gems come from?
The answer is, their society is prejudiced, oppressively hierarchical, totalitarian, and unsustainable without interstellar exploration. The Crystal Gems, as the heroes of the show call themselves are the remnants of a rebellion that happened on Earth, wherein one particular Crystal Gem made the conscious decision to not be an invading alien parasitic monster. This person was Rose Quartz. She convinced others to choose not to be monsters, even though they knew it would make them criminals in the eyes of their fellows. Even though they knew they would have to fight, and most of them died.
Really, the society of the Homeworld Gems is terrible. When Jasper arrives she calls Garnet a “shameless display”. She disregards the virtue of intimacy. The cartoon is pretty clear on this. For the gems, there is no greater physical intimacy than to experience fusion. When two or more gems fuse their physical forms, when they join their magical energies to become one greater being, mitigating their weaknesses, enhancing their strengths, this is just as sexual, just as dangerously vulnerable, just as important as the most intimate acts humans can perform for each other, and she called it “a trick”. What a horrible culture they must have that to them intimacy is only ever a means to some other end.
They chose to rebel, because they were inspired by us, humans. Sure we are predatory, pack-hunting apes. We can be pretty horrible. But we are not parasite monsters that leach the life out of everywhere we choose to reproduce. We can be intimate with each other. We can be in harmony with our surroundings. We can find sustainable ways of being. We can nurture those things we find necessary to survive. A lot of what we thrive on is just grass and weeds anyways, if the mint in my window-box is any indication. Seriously mint, whats going on with you? This runner that I am pruning right now: I am not pruning it because I need mint for tabuli. I am pruning it because there is no way you are ever going to find sun, soil, and water on my carpet. Stay in the window box. Where are you trying to reach?
So after thousands of years protecting us humans despite all our weird horribleness, Rose Quartz met Greg Universe. And she had almost given up hope. She was just going through the motions, just protecting the Earth from the remnants of the mess that was made when her civilization invaded the Earth. But how could she do anything else? If she went elsewhere, the parasite monsters would come back. Could she rebuild her army? She didn’t know any other way to make new gems. She only knew that gems were made in the ground and that it sapped something from the Earth or polluted it in some way, I’m not sure. I haven’t watched much past the first season and not in order. The point is, she was painted into a corner. Eventually she would die, either in accident or battle, eventually all the remaining Crystal Gems would die, and their aspirations would die with them. No new gems would take up their cause.
But when she met Greg, he offered her a way out of the corner she’d painted herself into. Humans, half of us at any rate, have little human making factories built into us. The right sort of human, the female sort, can make another human inside her, and it doesn’t leach any kind of life energy from her at all, except maybe calcium, but that’s what almonds are for, or canned salmon burgers, you get it. Seriously moms, get your calcium. Osteoporosis is weird and scary.
If Rose Quartz could make a person inside her, she could make decedents, inheritors. Being a shape-changing magical alien, this should be easy for her. But even if she could do it, make a new human, that wouldn’t get her out of her trap. Human decedents would still consign her people, gems, to extinction or monstrosity. In order for Rose to have a decedent that could inherit her culture and civilization, she would need to create something new in the universe, some sort of human with a gem built into it.
In order for Rose to offer the possibility of a sustainable future for her people, she would need to create Steven, even if it meant that she had to put the only gem she had to work with, her own, into this new being.
Steven Universe is the hope of two entire species. Steven Universe is the hope for all humanity, that we can become something more magnificent, not frail creatures of meat and bone, but creatures of magic and power, stepping out among the stars. Steven Universe is the hope for all gem-kind that they could become something more magnificent, not rigid creatures of stone and oppression, but creatures of warmth and sisterhood.
Maybe Rose’s experiment will fail. Maybe Steven will never grow up and make more beings like himself, or new gems without the drawbacks of kindergardens. Maybe he will never be able to teach humans without gems to fuse or perform other magical gem abilities. Maybe it’s all just a pipe dream. Maybe the gem civilization will spread until they can no longer find worlds to despoil at which time they will become extinct with nobody to inherit their great achievements. Maybe the hand that Greg extended to Rose, maybe the love that he shared with her, maybe the hope that he offered her was all for naught. But right now, nobody knows what Steven is capable of. For right now, Steven is the hope of the universe.
And I believe in Steven.