Grasping On

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

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

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

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

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: