There are some stories, some ways of explaining the world that I keep coming back to.
When I worked at a hippie preschool, I learned that children process the world in all its pain and newnesses through play, re-enacting and transforming events in order to gain power over them. Sometimes stories I consume are like play for me, and I can tell by how a piece of media or fiction resonates in my mind that it is also about me and my life, and that I need to take it in, in order to heal.
Steven Universe, (a Cartoon Network animated series about queer feminist space aliens) has this power for me. Its nonbinary creator, Rebecca Sugar and the rest of the “crewniverse” have given us profound parables for trauma, healing, and queer and trans identity that embrace complexity, silliness, and love. The show seems to be tying up loose ends, so I wanted to document what it has meant for me.
Like the emotions it portrays, the premise of the show is complex. Thousands of years ago, a species of all female/nonbinary queer aliens from the planet, Homeworld, who have special powers and generally live forever (the gems) colonized Earth. One of them started a revolution against the home planet in defense of Earth’s inhabitants and ecosystem. This leader of the revolution is Steven’s mother, Rose. She fell in love with a human man, Steven’s dad, Greg, and gave up her body in order for Steven to be born—but she still lives within Steven in ways we learn about as the series unfolds. The show takes place in a beach town, appropriately called Beach City, where Steven is being raised by the small band of revolutionary gems who followed his mom, the Crystal Gems (Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl), hanging out with his friends and his dad, and learning how to use his powers to defend the Earth, just as his mother did. Although Steven also learns more and more about the dark history that shaped the life of his mother and those she touched, he faces these realities with resolve, immense empathy, and as downright joy.
Although it doesn’t get everything right and certainly doesn’t get race right, Steven Universe has special gifts to offer trans survivors. Steven offers a trauma-informed viewing experience, seemingly working hard not to trigger audiences even though the show is often about trauma. I’ve had trouble putting my finger on how the writers achieve this paradox, and have determined that the show’s unique magic is that it portrays struggles with trauma, violence, identity, and healing in a world inheritantly queer, unbound to the gender binary, and through the eyes of someone infectiously kind, warm, and positive.
This has led me to reflect that perhaps so much of what makes the trauma of violence and marginalized identity painful—what makes it trauma rather than just an unfortunate thing that happened— is the way the survivor’s family and community respond to it, compounding the pain of the event itself. In Steven, the community is kind, queer, and resilient. People who experience hard things have a safe place to land, and seeing that, feeling that, is healing.
*Descriptions of specific episodes and spoilers below.*
Steven universe teaches us that accountability for harm is possible, but involves facing our biggest challenges. When Pearl lies to Garnet in order to engage in fusion with her (the show’s analog for intimacy and sex), Garnet is livid, literally coming apart. She describes feeling violated. When she confronts Pearl, Pearl guiltily and tearfully explains/excuses her motivations. The audience sees clearly that Pearl is flawed and human (as human as a space alien can be), that she manipulated Garnet because she herself felt small, but also that she was very wrong and her behavior was unacceptable. It is several episodes of stony silence between them before Garnet forgives Pearl here:
Garnet tells Pearl she needs to be strong and embrace being her own person so that Garnet can forgive her. This is profound: it is not kindness or remorse that constitutes accountability for Pearl; it is emotional independence and an end to co-dependent connection. These complicated big truths populate the world of Steven Universe.
Steven teaches us that abusive relationships can be compelling, and that it is possible to regain a sense of self after abusr. Lapis Lazulie, a gem who joins the show at the end of season 1, determines that the only way to defeat Jasper, an evil soldier sent from Homeworld, is to pull him under the sea (the domain of her and her magic) with her, but this leaves them struggling against each other and knotted together in a dangerous, unstable fusion for years. Although Lapis eventually breaks free, she exhibits signs of trauma from the experience and describes it harrowingly. She confesses to Steven that she misses Jasper because “we were fused for so long.” When Steven, shocked, says “but she’s terrible,” Lapis replies “I’m terrible! I did terrible things!,” mirroring the guilt many survivors feel about their survival tactics in abusive relationships. In the same scene (below), Jasper shows up because she’s been following Lapis and begs her to fuse with her again. “I needed you, I hated you…it wasn’t healthy” Lapis replies, describing their relationship under the sea and neatly encapsulating what unhealthy relationships feel like. “I’ve changed,” Jasper pleads. But Lapis gathers her resolve and says no, standing a little taller, her head no longer bowed, saying “I never want to feel that way again.” In the show’s portrayal of these and other unhealthy relationships, it does not trade in simplistic tropes and black eyes. Through symbolism and emotional authenticity, it embraces the nuance of what holds people captive in relationships that keep us from being whole.
Steven Universe has always centered questions of identity. The Homeworld gems have a strict biological caste system, so as the Crystal Gems leave it behind, they struggle with questions of who they are. Fusion itself is also about identity. When gems fuse, they do not only gain intimacy with each other, they become a part of each other, forming a body that shares both of their characteristics. As Garnet says “you are not 2 people, and you are not 1 person, you are an experience.” This hard-to-define state has resonated for some viewers as non-binary (especially when it takes place between charcaters of different genders). But in recent episode Stephen has addressed trans identity much more directly. When he returns to Homeworld, his mother’s family sees him not as a descendent of his mother, Rose, but as Rose, simply in another physical form. They expect him to take on her clothes, her role, and even her personality, while Steven insists he is his own person. He asks and eventually demands that they see him as he is, echoing many trans people whose loved ones question the validity of their identity. Violence is done to Steven in order to test who he is.
As Garnet says “you are not 2 people, and you are not 1 person, you are an experience.” This hard-to-define state has resonated for some viewers as non-binary.
Steven Universe’s portrayal of trans identity and trauma feels very real even though it’s a pastel cartoon, with no grittiness to be found. Part of the authenticity is the pace: with some exceptions, characters do not overcome their trauma during the course of the episode or even the series. We see them grapple with it, get triggered, and grow in ways that feel enlivening and true. The show also uses metaphors adeptly and surreally to portray the experience of violence and trauma in a way live action shows never could. At times the audience gets to visit the inside the character’s minds.
Steven also has great insight about healing and how it takes place. One long arc revolves around corrupted gem fragments–basically thousands of mutant limbs with no minds–that Homeworld has planted in the center of the Earth with a singular mission to emerge and destroy it. In an effort to disrupt this plan and save the world (as always), Steven ventures into the center of the Earth. He finds that with his empathetic powers, he can hear the corrupted gems crying like lost spirits, and that their will to destroy is based in confusion and pain. He soothes them and bathes them in love until they become whole and no longer want to commit harm.
What better metaphor for healing is there than that?