Steven Universe is a phenomenal show covering many issues and experiences while promoting compassion, growth, and freedom of expression. Though it is still very much a children's show, it is one of the few programs out there that covers trauma, identity, and other challenges in a healthy and empathetic way. Gabe reviews each Crystal Gem's unique journey to self-acceptance and also why they wish there was more justice regarding the Diamonds. Kat dives into Steven's growth and how a childhood of fighting oppressive forces can do a number on one's mental health.
Reviews on Steven Universe:
Media from this week's episode:
Steven Universe Original (2013-2019)
A team of intergalactic warriors fights to protect the Earth, but the combination of three highly trained beings and one quirky young boy leaves the team struggling to overcome the dangerous scenarios that are put in front of them.
Creator Rebecca Sugar
Steven Universe Future(2019-2020)
The series focuses on the aftermath of the events of Steven Universe, where humans and Gems coexist in harmony after the end of the war between the Crystal Gems and Homeworld.
Creator Rebecca Sugar
Steven Universe: A Journey of Self-Love and Healing From Trauma
by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Steven Universe is a phenomenal show covering many issues and experiences while promoting compassion, growth, and freedom of expression. The show begins as very much a children’s show, with main character and lovable boy, Steven up to silly antics in his small town. But as the show progresses, the world built upon, and characters are given opportunities to grow into themselves, the show becomes something more. I have laughed. I have cried. And I have felt inspired while watching Steven Universe. Throughout the 7 years of the show’s run, it explored identity, queer love, capitalism, climate change, disabilities, grief, trauma, and more. Each character in the show is exploring their own path towards self-love and acceptance so I plan to discuss each Gem’s specific journey.
Synopsis: Steven Universe is a mixed boy living in Beach City with his family. Steven is part human and part Gem. Gems are an alien race of femme-presenting humanoids who live on a distant planet. Gems belong to a hierarchical, caste society where they are created to perform specific duties. They are expected to perform the duties required of them depending on their gem-identity. For example, Rubies protect. Similar to the Quartz’ who are bodyguards or a military force. Pearls are designed to pamper and care for the ruling class, the Diamonds. Steven’s mom was one of these gems, a Rose Quartz. However, she is unlike the Homeworld Gems and instead was a rebellion leader for a group called the Crystal Gems who fought against the oppressive regime of the Homeworld to protect planet Earth from colonization and environmental destruction. As well as to fight for their right to simply exist in the unique ways that they do. Yes, this is a children’s show. The Gems have special abilities that correspond to their gems but further, the Crystal Gems have their own unique weapons and powers used to protect the Earth, each other, and ultimately their way of life.
A unique ability Gems have is to join together to become something bigger through the act of fusion. On Homeworld, you may see several Rubies fuse together to form a larger Ruby. This can also be seen with Topaz. However, though we do know that fusion exists for Homeworld Gems, they never fuse with a different Gem class. The Crystal Gems however, can be seen fusing together to become something not only stronger and bigger like the Homeworld Gems but something altogether new. A new being with a distinct personality (a combination of the traits exhibited in the Gems who’re fusing), look, name, and voice. For example, Amethyst and Pearl make Opal, a tall, giant woman of elegance. As Amethyst describes her to Steven, “She's an ultra-powerful, "Stone Cold Betty", that part's me...and she's, like, kinda tall — that part's Pearl.” Or Sugilite, a fusion between Amethyst and Garnet who is a strong, rockstar voiced by Nikki Minaj. Steven learns to fuse and becomes uniquely powered Gems with the Crystal Gems but he can also fuse with his best friend, Connie to become Stevonnie, a half-human half-Gem non-binary person who just like Connie and Steven are working through growing pains to discover who they are.
Steven’s mom Rose is not in the show because she has done something completely unexpected, fallen in love with a human. To create Steven, she had to give up her existence. Steven sports his mother’s gemstone and is often referred to as her by any Homeworld gems.
The first season of SU is about Steven beginning to unpack the complexities of his mother’s existence but more than that separating himself from her legacy to become his own person. How much of him is her, and how much of her debt should he shoulder?
The Crystal Gems that have not been wiped out by Homeworld are now Steven’s found family along with his father, Greg. We learn throughout the series, as we get to know the histories of the Crystal Gems that they are each something truly special. Beyond saving the planet from being robbed of its natural resources for gem production, the Crystal Gems are themselves an act of rebellion. Each one represents some deference from the norm of the Homeworld Colonies.
The Crystal Gems
Pearl is a mother figure for Steven and unlike any Pearl on Homeworld. Pearls are delicate and subservient, catering to the needs of the Diamonds. However, this Pearl is an elegant fighter and tactical genius. She protects the family and served as the righthand to the leader, Rose during the war. Pearl’s journey is one of self-love and reconciling unrequited love. She works to accept the strength in her and confront the stereotypes others make of her based on her Gem identity. She also was very much in love with Steven’s mother, Rose, and struggles with what Steven’s existence means for Rose’s love for Greg. All Gems are femme presenting and so the queerness of her love is not something struggled against but accepted, the issue comes from her loving a Gem unlike her own.
Amethyst, a stout and spunky Gem who can shapeshift, is much like an unruly sibling to Steven. However, Amethysts like other Quartz are designed to be large, strong protectors. Amethyst’s Kindergarten (where Gems are made) was abandoned, leaving her to be born significantly later and looking very different from other Amethysts. She struggles with her identity, having been born different, and further, raised exclusively here on Earth, never having seen the Homeworld. She doesn’t even know what Amethysts should look like until much later in the series and from there, wrestles with her own identity, finding her place in the Crystal Gems and feeling worthy of love. Had she been born into the Homeworld Colonies, she’d have been tossed aside, hunted, or even, destroyed for being different.
Garnet, is a tall, strong, and level-headed mother figure for Steven. Where Pearl can be a bit of a helicopter parent, Garnet is calm, cool, and collected allowing Steven to explore the world around him but always watching from afar in case she is needed for support. It is revealed later in the series that Garnet is a very special gem. Because Garnet is a fusion, all the time. Comprised of two Gems in love, Garnet and Sapphire who connected in a fateful event during the wars. These two Gems have fused to become the powerful and loving, Garnet. Her fusion of two different Gems makes her an outsider to the Homeworld Gems, some even call her an abomination. Garnet is the embodiment of love and through the Crystal Gems, she learned to accept herself and the love her two Gems feel for one another.
As the show progresses, Homeworld Gems become aware of the existence of the Crystal Gems. These other Gems come to Earth to investigate, though each one finds themselves affected by the freedom and new understanding of themselves when interacting with the Crystal Gems. Two of the later members of the Crystal Gems, Peridot and Lapis Lazuli are tasked with unpacking their trauma alongside the founding Crystal Gems who, though still healing, have had much more time to discover themselves.
Peridots are techinologically savvy Gems with long limbs and similar powers to the other Gems (fusions, manifesting weapons, etc). However, the Peridot we meet in the show is revealed to be wearing limb enhancers and has no powers. The Crystal Gems’ Peridot was born on a planet with minimal resources to create new Gems, resulting in them being created “incompletely.” As Peridot interacts with these Earthly Gems, she slowly begins to accept herself and no longer relies on the limb-enhancers. She also understands she is incredibly intelligent and discovers a small spark of power within herself. But even more impressive, is her relationship with fellow Homeworld Gem, Lapis who she is forced to cohabitate with. She learns compassion, patience, and even how to be funny.
Lapis Lazuli is a truly complicated and traumatized Gem who was used by the Gems in power as a tool. She was trapped in a mirror and used as a weapon but during the Gem War, Lapis’ mirror was cracked, sealing her within the glass tomb until Steven accidentally heals and releases her. She harbors resentment towards those who used her but also those who did not release her. Later, she is forced to fuse with a harmful Gem, Jasper. This fusion is abusive and traumatizing for Lapis who, having just escaped the mirror, is now once again chained against her will. She later chooses to stay in this abusive relationship with the intent of keeping Jasper from hurting others. There isn’t any blaming or shaming of her as a victim and the act, though troubling, is heroic in some ways. Staying isn’t always due to weakness and her complex relationship with Jasper felt real and valid. In a later scene, when she encounters Jasper again after having been freed from the fusion she explains, “I liked taking everything out on you. I needed you. I hated you.” The harm she was subjected to and the lack of compassion from anyone in her life makes her a vulnerable and distrusting Gem. She has the hardest time adjusting to Earth and trusting the Crystal Gems. She harbors so much resentment that she cannot accept an easy life, she is stuck in her fight or flight response, constantly seeking retribution for her treatment. However, through her relationship with Peridot and Steven, she slowly allows herself to feel joy and begins to express herself through art (which she calls Morbs).
The Crystal Gems are a beautiful family of misfits who have broken from the molds and in simply existing, are rebelling. Throughout the show, we see many other Gems struggling to exist in the oppressive world the Diamonds created. Including the “Off Color” Gems Steven finds on Homeworld. These Gems feature physical abnormalities and even some intense fusions. They had been deemed "defective" and "off-color" by Homeworld's strict standards and Caste System. Later, in Steven Universe: Future, Gems who’ve been freed from the cruel Diamond hierarchical society struggle to find their place in society, relearning how to attribute their worth into something other than the job they were born to complete. Amethyst, in explaining to Steven how she was helping each of the Homeworld Gems readjust puts their healing journey simply saying, “Everyone here has their own weird history. They should each get to choose how they feel about it.”
Which brings me to a part of Steven Universe I don’t quite agree with. That is the redemption of the Diamonds and Steven’s mother, Rose.
Here there be spoilers! Though much of my section has been a concise recap of the Gems individual journeys, I’ve shied away from big plot points so if you don’t want to be spoiled for the end of Steven Universe or the movie.
Steven is a kind soul who, having been raised by beings of love and freedom, brings this unique outlook to Homeworld to confront the Diamonds. By this time, it has been revealed that Steven’s mom Rose Quartz is in fact not a Quartz at all but a Diamond. The Diamonds are the ruling class of the Gems, comprised of 4 beings. Rose, who was actually Pink Diamond, was the youngest of this family and given Earth as her first colony. It is through her boredom that she finds herself on Earth where she quickly falls in love with the Gems she’s created but also the Earth itself. She attempts to convince the Diamonds to leave Earth alone but after being denied this, she stages her own death at the hands of a “Rose Quartz.”
I do not like Rose. Her fascination with Earth beings and even the different Gems always felt like a prince playing at pauper, belittling them. Her decision to pretend to be a Rose Quartz instead of confronting her family, results in many Gem deaths or bubblings (trapping gems in bubbles where they remain inert forever). Including all other real Rose Quartz which she never sets free. Even more upsetting is the character Rose is revealed to be in the Steven Universe movie. In it, we learn that Pink Diamond had a Gem assigned to her to keep her entertained. A fun Gem, Spinell, resembling an old timey cartoon character like Mickey Mouse mixed with Jenny, the Teenage Robot. When Pink Diamond grew annoyed and tired of Spinel’s humor, she challenged her to a game, forcing her to stay still on an abandoned garden planet to be forgotten. After Steven has “fixed” the Diamonds and convinced them to love not oppress, Spinel catches this new version of Rose on a screen and finally understands she’s been got. Rose simply forgot Spinell was up there or worse, didn’t care. This neglect is seen throughout the show with Rose as she puts the lives of the other Gems in harm’s way. In Steven Universe: Future, Steven is tasked with healing the physical crack in Pink’s Pearl. While trying to fix her, they discover her physical ailment is the result of psychological trauma, trauma she faced at the hands of Pink who we learn was susceptible to bouts of anger and abuse. In a truly heartbreaking scene, Pink Pearl or Volleyball, explains, “she didn’t mean to hurt me. I just happened to get too close to her that time.” Rose also knows of Pearl’s feelings for her and instead of rejecting her flat out, uses that love to push her agenda forward. Her “love” for Greg felt infantile, like a fascination with a puppy rather than a true love. And even in her creating of Steven, she is selfish, not ever considering that he would be left with her debt, shouldering her guilt and mistakes. It’s either that it didn’t even occur to her that she would be held responsible for her own actions (given that she never has before and has always been shown to be immature and childish) or worse, she did not care.
Even more upsetting is the redemption arc of the Diamonds. It is never explained why they need to make the Gems the way they do or why they need to deplete planets of their resources to do this. It’s giving Monsters Inc and screams versus laughter. The Diamonds care for Pink because she is one of them. So they work to get Pink back but they never truly learn that what they did and they way they lived was wrong. They murdered and intentional physically disfigured Gems by way of corruption without a second thought. They are the bourgeoisie in their Versailles castle, leveraging Gem bodies for their own…amusement? There is no explanation as to why the world needed to be this way or why. This is because it is a kid’s show and I absolutely get that. But I simply disagree with the ease at which the Diamonds are “redeemed” and forgiven when they’ve been the biggest villain the entire show. Each of the Gem’s internalized trauma and self-hate can be tied directly back to the regime of the Diamonds.
Overall, the show is a phenomenal piece of media. Despite being a kid’s show, it is one of the few shows I confidently refer to when talking about unpacking trauma and self-identity, representation, and queer love. It’s still very much a children’s show with silly antics and absurd characters. But even in the human characters, we can see true growth and self-acceptance that I don’t think we often get to see anywhere. For this show to exist and imprint these foundational messages of healing onto children, is truly a gift.
Unpacking the Adverse Childhood Experiences of Steven Universe by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
There is so much to say about Steven Universe. I had texted Gabe before this episode to say I wish we had six hours to unpack the shows and movie to really cover every piece of the show. We don’t have six hours though so I’ll be unpacking what I can in the time we have allotted.
The show itself has done a lot to highlight and teach about the impact of trauma on developing minds, self-acceptance & expression, identity, love, oppression, prejudice, war, and other heavy themes in a way that makes it understandable for children. It also has done amazing things for LGBTQIA+ representation, and paved the way for the success of other LGBTQIA+ stories to reach more audiences. Steven Universe Future, takes the original show even further unpacking the reality that as cute and quirky as the original show was, the character of Steven, experienced a lot of neglect and trauma, especially when it came to his mixed identity of being both Gem and Human.
If you’ve been watching Ghouls for a while, you’ll know I'm very passionate about this particular topic, FOR NO REASON *eyes shift in multiple directions*...definitely not projecting!
Anyway, throughout the original show we see a very young and impressionable Steven, struggling to live up to the troubled legacy of his mother. Steven, although very much still a young child, is faced with very adult problems, responsibilities, and a lack of understanding of who he really is from everyone around him. The Gems, unfamiliar with what it means to be human, see Steven as his mother, Rose Quartz, and struggle throughout much of the early seasons to accept the loss of their friend, and the very real responsibility of raising a child. We see Greg Universe defer Steven’s care almost entirely to the Crystal Gems, and in doing so further neglecting the human piece of him. This in my opinion is what forced Steven to feel the overwhelming need to neglect his own needs, his own emotions, at the expense of himself and therefore never establishing a sense of self outside of his connection to others and how they see him. He was praised and celebrated when he was helpful, did heroic things, and made that the pillar of who he was. So much so that when he really does need the help of others he doesn’t know how to ask for it or rather doesn’t feel like he deserves any help, because he needs to make up for the mistakes of his mother.
In Steven Universe Future we see Steven really forced to grapple with what he’s experienced in his life, both in his own childhood, but also generationally. There are many episodes that drive this home, but I’ll talk through the ones that stood out most for me. The most obvious being the doctor episode, “Growing Pains” where Steven at the age of 16 is taken to the doctor for the first time, where he is forced to face the damage that has been done to his mind and body. This is where Connie's Mom really lays out everything for Steven in a way that he can’t run away from.
Connie’s Mom: “You seem to have made a series of miraculous recoveries, but that doesn't change the fact that you experienced trauma. You've recovered physically, but have you recovered mentally?”
Steven: “YOU THINK SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH MY BRAIN?”
Connie’s Mom: “Not wrong, it's that adverse childhood experiences of childhood trauma can have a lasting impact on how your body responds to stress. This can affect your social, emotional and physical development. When humans are in crisis the brain releases the hormone cortisol. Your heart races, your muscles tense, I wonder if your body is reacting to a gem equivalent of cortisol. Steven, do you remember anything bad in your childhood that particularly stuck with you?”
Steven: “I guess I kinda freaked out when they canceled my favorite ice cream...and then I got attacked by a giant bug monster, and then I got trapped in a bubble and almost drowned. I lost control of my body and turned into a blob of cats, I almost turned so old I died, Amethyst almost died, Pearl did die, Garnet got destabilized right in front of me...I woke up with a black eye imprisoned on an alien spaceship”
Connie’s Mom: “Steven this is serious!”
Steven: “But that was just the early stuff.”
Connie’s Mom: “I think all these experiences have been subjecting your body to a harmful amount of stress and that's affecting your ability to face new forms of stress in a healthy way you've been dealing with genuine threats from such a young age, your body is now responding to minor threats as if your life were in danger.”
Steven: “But why am I only swelling up now?”
Connie’s Mom: “Stress is less harmful when we have people we trust to help us through it, maybe if you're losing your supportive relationships or maybe if you had a recent experience that was particularly awful.”
The episode continues and Stevens' body turns pink, being triggered by the memory of Connie’s rejection. Steven’s Dad bursts into the room and his Dad is apologizing, and Steven, in classic Steven form of placating and absolving the adults around him of their very real responsibility in caring for him. He doesn’t trust the person who honestly actively neglected him as a child to be there for him in the way he needs, but in desperation he says the line that everytime I hear it makes me cry, “My body is reacting like it's the end of the world. I think I’ve seen the world almost end so many times now that everything that goes wrong feels that - that extreme. I should be feeling so good these days. The earth is safe, it’s era 3, but i’m swelling up over these third-era problems. What do I do? How do I move on from all the stuff I’ve been through? How do I live life if it always feels like I’m about to die?”
If you’re me after watching that scene you have to pause it cause you’re like “OMG HOW DO I LIVE LIFE IF I ALWAYS FEELS LIKE I’M ABOUT TO DIE?” But for serious, the episode teaches about a really real thing, which is the impact of adverse childhood experiences on your development, and the way that sometimes, for treat, your body and mind will struggle much more with the calm after the trauma than the trauma itself. In the trauma classes I took, although the research around it is always developing and changing, it was said that you don’t really feel the impact of the trauma until you’re out of it, because when you’re in fight or flight your body is just in survival mode. It is shutting down your emotional responses as a way of survival. The teacher of the class I was in described it as a bear. So say a bear visits you everyday, and to survive you’re always ready to fight or hide from or escape the bear, that bear visits every day and you’re doing whatever you need to survive. Now, say the bear stops visiting, or a hunter gets it, the bear is gone. However, you’re so used to the bear visiting everyday so your body is still ready to fight, hide or escape from the bear. Or it knows there’s more than one bear in the world because the hunter didn’t get all the bears and so you’re ready for one day when a bear will come find you. That’s kind of how our bodies respond to trauma, in that if you’re more used to trauma than calm, your body and mind are gonna struggle with being outside the trauma. Also if the main reason you got through the trauma, say a person in your life that you care about, is no longer with you, that can reactivate those feelings for you, cause your protective factor is gone.
Now I could talk about trauma all day, but if you’d like to learn more about it I highly recommend the following resources:
Nadine Burke Harris’ (Watch when in good headspace) How childhood Trauma affects health across a lifetime
read the books they gave us: Life After Trauma: A workbook for Healing
Course book- Creating Sanctuary
Adverse Childhood Experiecnes are finally recognized by the CDC as a health concern Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
If you really wanna be stressed, take the ACE test (do this when in a good headspace as it can be really upsetting) Take The ACE Quiz — And Learn What It Does And Doesn't Mean : Shots - Health News : NPR
Rewatching Steven Universe Future with Media Analysis glasses on made the entire thing feel so much more impactful. I had already watched it before, but the rewatch hit me way harder than before and really just reinforced how much I love the series as a whole. Each episode felt so intentional, with a very specific message about trauma and its impact, as well as how the systems the diamonds created to do harm are not dismantled entirely when they step down from leadership. Some of the systems continued on without their intervention. The damage is deeper than just one individual person.
This is seen in the episode “Volleyball” where Steven is confronted with Pink Diamond’s original Pearl, seeking medical care/healing for the crack on their face. A crack that is revealed to be the fault of Pink Diamond. This episode does so much for “impact over intent” as well as just the way that when a system is designed to harm, it can not be used to heal. Steven in a desperate attempt for a simple solution to erase the damage his mother caused, seeks out the Reef, a Pearl “repair” shop of sorts, used by the diamonds to mass produce Pearl servants. Steven focuses on the word repair, disregarding the fact that this shop has been used for harm.
As the newly nicknamed “Volleyball” prepares for “healing” Steven says in a rushed way, “Soon we’ll be able to put the past behind us.” Hoping to erase the open and blatant presentation of the damage his Mom did. The machine scans volleyball, and it says there’s nothing the machine can do because the damage is psychological not physical saying, “this injury must have been so impactful that it continues to manifest despite the fact that her pearl has been repaired.” Then in an eerie and uncomfortable way Volleyball says, “That’s absurd, I am fine” and the crack deepens. This begins the two Pearl’s conflict, with Pearl defending Pink Diamond and Volleyball just explaining what happened to her. Volleyball says, “She didn’t mean to hurt me, I just happened to be standing too close to her at that time.” To which Steven screams, “IT DOESN’T MATTER, I’M GONNA FIX IT!”’ We see Pearl start to get more upset at this different portrayal of the Gem she loved, and Steven gets very upset resulting in him turning pink and yelling, “I CAN’T DEAL WITH ONE MORE HORRIBLE THING SHE DID, OKAY?! I DON’T WANNA HEAR ABOUT IT, I DON’T EVEN WANT TO THINK ABOUT IT! I just want to fix this!” At which point the system activates, sensing that Steven feels threatened and acting to defend him without his giving an order.
For me it showcased that since Steven has generational trauma from a colonizing oppressor that did irreparable harm, facing that harm was very triggering for him. In his emotional reaction to someone literally just explaining their lived experience he has a very emotional and dramatic outburst that activates the system to harm the Pearl that was just existing and explaining the real harm that Steven’s mother caused. After realizing what he did, he tries to undo it but is unable to. Pearl and Volleyball are locked in a shell and in danger, they emotionally unite together by validating each other’s trauma and recognizing that they are not over what Pink Diamond did saying, “I’m sorry for not believing you, It looks like I still am making excuses for her.” Their conversation unfolds from there.
Volleyball: “Is that what I’ve been doing? But she didn’t mean to-”
Pearl: “BUT YOU WERE HURT…badly hurt..”
Volleyball: “I was badly hurt, how did you stop hurting?”
To which Pearl responds, “I didn’t.” and they hug, fusing together and escape. Finally freeing themselves and Steven. In a last act of healing, they throw Steven to literally dismantle the system and destroy it in the process.