The Cartoon Network show Steven Universe has held a special place within the LGBTQIA+ community. The cartoon has a tremendous amount of queer representation (more so than many “adult” queer shows), and this fact has resonated with younger and older fans alike. The show not only advocates for queer identity via the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ characters, but it also does this through queer social values.
At the heart of Steven Universe is a theory of social change that values empathy and emotional intelligence over violent, direct action. It’s not that the show abhors violence. The characters match fist-for-fist, whip-for-whip, and sword-for-sword with their enemies all the time, and at one point organized militarily to protect the Earth. It’s that violence is rarely deemed a final answer for solving systemic problems, and only used when nonviolent approaches fail. We truly win, the show argues, when we emotionally connect with our enemies and convince them to abandon their endeavors.
This worldview has been criticized by many as naive (i.e What happens when someone refuses to change?). As Zach Blumenfeld writes in Paste Magazine:
“…the [show] seems to implore us to side with Rose Quartz, Steven, and their universal respect for life. In the real world, though, things don’t tend to work that way. War generally involves killing one’s opponents, as horrifying as that can be psychologically, because killing one’s opponents is the most certain way to end opposition.”
Steven Universe: The Movie responds to these criticisms in the form of an antagonist who challenges the notion that “ending opposition” is truly possible. The show wants us to recognize the never-ending pursuit of social justice, even as it advocates for the queer community to continue to fight for it.
For the uninitiated, Steven Universe is about the titular Steven fighting against an oppressive regime alongside his friends the Crystal Gems. Steven is half-human, half-alien. Specifically, he is half-Gem, which are sentient rocks who have the ability to project a form made of light to interact with the material world.
Steven was born thousands of years after a violent civil war occurred on Earth between the imperialist gem regime called The Diamond Authority, and the organic-life-loving Crystal Gems. The civil war was led by Steven’s late mother, Rose Quartz, and much of Steven's arc involves dealing with the ramifications of his mother’s decisions centuries after the fact.
One of the unique things about Steven is how he deals with many of these problems. Steven never treats violence as an end in and of itself. His primary weapon isn’t a sword, but a shield. His main power is the ability to heal people. His “enemies” are all treated as potential allies who are simply blinded by faulty information and trauma.
Are you trying to drain the Earth of all of its water? Let’s talk about why.
Are you a sentient hive mind in the center of the Earth’s core primed to explode? Tell me more about that.
Do you govern the galaxy with an iron fist? Today, we’re going to dive into your family trauma.
Steven wins his battles by talking with these big bads until a middle ground can finally be reached. This strategy should be familiar to anyone who has had to convince a family member of their right to exist. Out of necessity, the queer community has been transmuting enemies into friends for centuries. When society hates you, changing that society becomes a necessary, albeit frustrating, act of survival.
Steven Universe: The Movie takes places after The Diamond Authority has been dismantled. The galaxy is experiencing the greatest level of peace that it has ever known, and yet the fight is not over. A new gem lands on planet Earth. Her name is Spinel, and with the help of her gigantic injector (a device that pumps poison into the ground), she tries to destroy Steven, as well as all other organic life on Earth.
From a traditional narrative standpoint — which is to say a series written by a cis man — dismantling a big, bad like The Diamond Authority is typically the endpoint of a series. When another villain does emerge, they are an even bigger, more evil force coming out from the shadows in the wake of a power vacuum.
Steven’s struggle, though, has nothing to do with supreme forces vying for galactic conquest. He’s combatting a seemingly random array of actors only connected through the pain of the past. This is a dynamic Steven reflects on near the climax of the film:
STEVEN: Why aren’t my powers back? Aren’t I reliving every horrible thing that’s ever happened to me? A Gem I barely know is trying to kill me. I’m paying for stuff my Mom did that had nothing to do with me. I’m struggling with my powers! The world’s about to end! What piece could I be missing?! THIS IS THE STORY OF MY LIFE!
The fight isn’t over because the fight for equality will never be over. The traumas of the past do not end because those in power have decided to start correcting some of their mistakes. Progress is a never-ending mitigation of past wrongs, often from people who have long since perished. Rose Quartz will never be able to right her past wrongs because she is dead, and the same can be said for most awful people throughout history.
Traumas outlive the awful people who cause them.
With this in mind, we have Spinel. She isn’t some puppet master who has secretly been ruling from the shadows. She was a former court jester who Steven's mother abandoned thousands of years ago on a whim. We come to empathize with Spinel’s pain of dutifully waiting for Rose Quartz to return in a heartwrenching song titled Drift Away. We know the emotional reason she is trying to destroy the Earth. She is resentful and projecting the pain of her trauma on to her former master’s son.
She is yet another person from Rose Quartz’s past that Steven has to face.
In cishet fiction, this final confrontation would be a display of all the skills and powers Steven has accumulated. He would blast Spinel with a mega, super energy beam after slashing her thousands of times with his omega sword of destiny. This movie, however, takes great care to place Steven back to square one. He loses all his powers, and his friends, The Crystal Gems, lose all of their memories.
This “power reset” is a perfect metaphor for the show's theory of social change:
- Every new conversation with someone on the opposing side will be just as difficult as your first.
- You can convert thousands of people to your cause, and it will still be hard to change someone’s mind because any conversation is ultimately a two-way street.
As Steven tells Spinel in the song True Kinda Love:
Hey you, show me that solvable problem, we can get through this, I’ll do the hardest part with you…
The trick to changing someone’s mind is committing to the emotional labor of helping them work through their trauma without losing your mind. We then repeat this task for everybody, forever. It’s a theory of social change that is simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic. In the words of Steven:
“There’s no such thing as happily ever after.”
There will never be a moment where all the conflicts of society are resolved, but victory is possible on a person-to-person basis. Steven convinces Spinel to stop her rampage, even if he fails on other fronts. This point is brought home in the closing moments of the movie. Steven doesn’t succeed in stopping Spinel’s injector from poisoning the Earth. It all dumps into the ground, and he has to spend months healing the Earth, one magical kiss at a time.
The answer to the question of “what happens when you don’t change someone’s mind in time, or at all?” is to continue fighting. You and your friends use your swords, shields, and words to resist your enemies until you can get the fighting to stop. You take pleasure in your short-lived victory with your former enemies hopefully alongside you. The cycle then repeats as you combat the next person who is using their power to hurt others.
As our world becomes increasingly more unstable and violent (e.g. climate change, the rise of fascism, increasing corporatism, etc.), the show rallies its predominantly queer audience to find joy in a struggle that will span beyond our lifetimes. A struggle that has been waged for millennia by countless LGBTQIA+ people before us. There were actions committed centuries ago to which we are still responding, and the same will hold true generations into the future.
The fight for justice never ends, but it’s still worth fighting for anyway. That’s why the people of this world believe in people like (Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, and) Steven.
UPDATE (11/24/20): a previous version of this article suggested that it took years for Steven Universe to heal the Earth rather than months.