It is rare for a cartoon TV show targeted towards children to address issues of colonization, power and abuse, but Steven Universe has been challenging power dynamics and allowing viewers ways in to conversations around healing from trauma and abuse since its first season.
Because Steven Universe has a diverse fandom among adults as well as teens and children, its storytelling has had an impact, portraying messy, compassionate characters who are queer, gender non-comforming and people of color who are healing from trauma in nonlinear ways. The show also depicts how accountability for both the heroes and the supposed villains, a line that is blurred often throughout the show, is an imperfect process.
[Spoilers for the entire Steven Universe canon]
Pink Diamond’s ability to change forms into Rose Quartz allowed her the opportunity to start fresh with a new persona, a new identity through which she could fight for the protection of the Earth and the liberation of the Gems from the Diamond-led caste system that she had once been a part of. Upon learning that Rose Quartz was Pink Diamond, the Crystal Gems as a unit are shaken at the revelation, struggling with how their leader could have been a part of the oppressive regime that they had spent their lives fighting against. It becomes clear that Rose was not held fully accountable for her past as Pink Diamond, and it is Steven, who is his own person, but still has his mother’s gem, that must reconcile with the past harms that she has done. The other characters question whether Rose Quartz did enough to hold herself accountable for her actions as Pink Diamond on her colony, Earth. By becoming Rose Quartz, Pink Diamond concealed her old identity to start a new life.
This struggle is at the forefront of the latest and last season of Steven Universe, Steven Universe Future, which takes place after the events of The Steven Universe Movie, wherein Steven learns that his mother, as Pink Diamond, left her “friend” Spinel in a lonely space garden alone for 6,000 years. After everything that Steven has learned about his mother, from her bubbling gems she couldn’t save and imprisoning them for years to the lies she told as Rose Quartz to protect her secrets, it becomes clear that Pink Diamond had a history of manipulating those around her as she saw fit and did little to nothing to ever make amends. This disturbs kindhearted Steven greatly, not only because he has to then deal with the aftermath of his mother’s actions, but because it hurts him to know that she was capable of this callousness, and even cruelty.
In Steven Universe Future, Steven and the Crystal Gems grapple with what they want their own self-sustaining futures to look like. They have created a school for wayward Gems on Earth called Little Homeschool to help them find purpose and meaning now that the Diamonds on Homeworld have stopped creating colonies and are attempting to undo the damage they have done through hierarchy and colonization. Steven, now 16, is attempting to move on into a future free of his mother’s past transgressions but must still contend with her harmful legacy with each new Gem he attempts to liberate or help. While Steven has had to deal with this struggle before with Lapis Lazuli and more recently with Spinel, he is forced in this series to understand that he cannot entirely separate who he is from his mother’s past abuses, and that he cannot always be the one to fix the Gems who are literally and emotionally broken.
This is especially evident in Episode 4: “Volleyball”, Steven finds himself trying to help Pink Diamond’s former Pearl from Homeworld find a new purpose in her life on Earth, besides serving Pink who no longer exists as she once did. This Pearl served Pink Diamond on Homeworld for hundreds of years and is now learning what a new life could look like on Earth. The thing that she asks Steven for, however, is to help her heal her physical form which has a crack across her eye. Steven inherited his healing powers from his mother, and attempts to use his healing spit to heal this Pearl, who dubs herself Volleyball, and her gem. Gems that are damaged cause the physical forms of the Gem (made of light energy) to become deconstructed or damaged in some way. Steven administers his healing spit, only to find that her gem itself is not broken but her physical form is still damaged. Steven is surprised and disappointed that he is unable to help this gem; since season one he has relied on his healing powers to right the wrongs of his mother’s past and help gems in need. Healing other gems has become a big much a part of Stevens identity; he healed his father’s broken leg after the first Homeworld attack, he healed Lapis Lazuli and brought her back to her original form, and since has figured out how to use his powers, and those of the other diamonds, to heal the corrupted gems that were once shattered. His failure to be able to do so now shakes him to his core.
In an effort to help Volleyball, Steven enlists Pearl to figure out what might be wrong with her. At first, the two Pearl’s conflict because of their relationships to Pink Diamond. They knew Pink Diamond as very different people, to the point where Pearl becomes jealous as she realizes that she was not the only gem to have Pink Diamond’s confidence. They decide to take Volleyball to the Reef, a care and repair center for Pearls. Through the Reef’s assessment, Volleyball is deemed “irreparable” because her injury, though manifesting physically, is psychological. When Steven and Pearl attempt to figure out what caused this trauma, Volleyball has a traumatic flashback about Pink Diamond and we come to understand that Pink Diamond was prone to bouts of anger that would lash out and hurt others, despite Pearl’s insistence that she was “a healer,” showing just how different the two Pearls’ relationships with Pink Diamond really were. The language used to describe this abuse is so subtle, but to anyone who recognizes how abusers act and how survivors of abuse react, the moment is clear and poignant when Volleyball says, “she didn’t mean to hurt me. I just happened to get too close to her that time.”
Steven’s frustration and anger at his own inability to help Volleyball and the horror at what his mother is capable of reaches a boiling point and he lashes out in the same way that Pink Diamond did, screaming “I can’t deal with one more horrible thing she did! I just want to fix it!” re-traumatizing Volleyball and causing her to shrink away from him. This struggle shows what happens when people must reconcile their relationships with someone who was abusive and the abuse that that person perpetrated. It also reaffirms the work that Steven must do, though he doesn’t fully understand it at the moment, to let go of his need to “fix” the mistakes of his mother and to find his own way. Though her gem is a part of him, and therefore she is a part of him, Steven is doing the work to address the trauma that his mother caused, and not to perpetuate it.
The episode takes a beautiful turn when Pearl steps in to help Volleyball. Pearl apologizes for not believing that Pink Diamond was capable of this kind of abuse, saying, “I guess I’m still making excuses for her.” This admission creates the space to believe Volleyball’s experiences and for Volleyball to realize that what happened to her, intentional or not, was not okay. “You were hurt, badly hurt,” Pearl tells her. “I was badly hurt,” Volleyball responds, and asks, “how did you stop hurting?” Pearl tells her, embracing her, “I didn’t.” This moment of fusion between the two embodies empathy and understanding across experiences and perspectives. At the end of the episode, when Steven laments that the trip to the Reef was for nothing, the fused Pearl tells him that this isn’t true, saying, “Now I get to understand everything. Now they get to have each other.” In this moment, we see how two survivors find each other and are able to give one another the solidarity and care that the other needs.
While the rest of Steven Universe Future shows Steven struggling to find his purpose now that he is no longer the “fixer” or “healer” of the Gems, this episode does so much to affirm that sometimes all one can do is to make space for messy truths and to acknowledge that hurt was done. Pearl helps Steven to address this gem’s trauma by dealing with his own anger towards his mother and to find forgiveness in himself. She challenges Steven’s understanding of healing and what he wants to leave behind, showing him that healing is an ongoing process that may never fully end.
As a someone who has witnessed cycles of familial abuse perpetrated over the course of several generations, it felt so refreshing to see how a show specifically created for kids and youth (though one could argue that Steven Universe’s fandom has transcended age demographics) could address the ongoing trauma caused by abuse in an eleven-minute episode, and how speaking about it openly, listening to survivors, and making space for them is the best path to healing. While the series is coming to a close, fans like myself and new viewers can appreciate all the work that the creators have done to make space for difficult truths and what friendship and love can do.
Leticia Urieta is proud Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets, Lumina, The Offing, Kweli Journal, Medium, Electric Lit and others. Her chapbook, The Monster is out now from LibroMobile Press. She is currently at work completing her novel that tells the story of a Mexican soldadera caught up in the march to Texas during Texas’ war with Mexico.