Steven Universe Handles Toxic Relationships Perfectly For Its Audience

Steven Universe's first six seasons -- and accompanying spinoff movie -- might not be the end of the road for the Steven and his Crystal Gem family, but they certainly feel like they could be. Stories are always defined by their endings -- good or bad, and whatever form the planned continuation takes, the self-contained nature of this six-season arc means we can now weigh up this era of the Cartoon Network show and figure out what legacy it might leave.

A lot of praise has been heaped on Steven Universe's clear and positive LGBTQ representation, something that we really shouldn't have to call "radical" in this day and age but, unfortunately, children's media is still bogged down by bigoted alarmism. Less attention, perhaps, has been given to the way that Steven Universe handles its less wholesome subject matter. Over 160 episodes, and one movie, Steven Universe is a masterclass in how to define different kinds of relationships -- and their complexities -- on a level children can understand. Previously, PSAs about bullying and abuse have been shoveled clumsily into young viewers' ears by way a character breaking the fourth wall to deliver a startlingly frank message right to the camera. (The show even pays lip service to this by way of Sunstone.) Now, we live in an age of post-modern nuance.

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RELATED: What the Steven Universe Movie Means For the Series' Future

Learning how to relate to other people, and how they, in turn, relate to you, is obviously something very pertinent and important to a kid's development. In Steven Universe, the very nature of fusion, a power that allows the alien gems to join together to create a new hybrid being, is the perfect conduit to go beyond just delivering empty epithets about how great friendship and being nice to others is. Steven Universe has these same old messages, but it takes the time to show, rather than tell.

In order to fuse, gems (or humans, with at least one gem involved) have to dance together. (Likely a deliberate homage to a similar technique in Dragon Ball given creator Rebecca Sugar's clear anime influences.) Like any dance, partners have to be in sync with one another, which means creating a functional, trusting bond. In the case of fusion, it also means aligning personality traits to make something new. Opal, Pearl and Amethyst's fusion, for instance, mixes Pearl's obsessiveness and Amethyst's carefree attitude to find equilibrium: Opal is serene in nature but exact in her actions.

For gems like Garnet, who is revealed later in the show to be a permanent fusion of gems, Sapphire and Ruby, it's an act that affirms a loving, committed union. To put this into a more human context, the couple ends up getting married on Earth. Temporary fusions usually serve more temporary purposes -- a team-up for a battle or, in the case of Steven's fusion with his love interest, Connie, a foray into the older "cool kids" world. Temporary, but no less meaningless. Not all bonds are life-long.

But we've seen fusion misused, too. When the imposing Homeworld gem, Jasper, and the bitter Lapis Lazuli -- who'd been trapped on Earth for years -- decided to fuse, it was for all the wrong reasons. Their union was one formed on a bedrock of spite rather than in the spirit of genuine cooperation. The result was Malachite, whose instability was clear in her nightmarish, chimera design and in the fact that her component gems kept vying for dominance rather than act as one. A similar thing happens when Garnet, Pearl and Amethyst's fusion, Alexandrite, is created when the trio's friendship is strained. Rather than talk in a single voice, Alexandrite argues with herself, like the three heads of Ghidorah snapping at each other.

Steven Universe

This all serves to drive home Steven Universe's overriding message of finding commonality in difference. Fusion doesn't "fix" the flaws of its participants; it finds untapped strength in them.

But as uplifting as the show is, it's also never backed away from complex subject matter. Rose Quartz, the rebel leader of the Crystal Gems who sacrificially imbued her half-human son with life, is lauded as a savior while the scars left by her sudden absence threaten to reopen at any second. Pearl, in particular, struggles to come to terms with raising the son of a woman who seemingly cast her aside in favor of not only a differently presenting gender -- Steven's dad -- but a different species. Until she finds relief in the show's later seasons, she's a tightly-coiled spring of unspoken pain and grief.

RELATED: Steven Universe: The Movie's Best Call-Outs to The Original Series

This underlying theme finally comes to the surface in the final few episodes where Steven -- after uncovering the truth: Rose Quartz was really Pink Diamond -- meets his Diamond family, the ruling matriarchs of the Gem Empire. Each of his intergalactic aunts can be seen to represent different types of toxic relationships that can emerge in a domestic environment: Yellow represents aggression; Blue represents emotional manipulation, while White, their leader, represents cold neglect. As a family unit, they've grown to be distant and sharp with one another, all rooted in the loss of a loved one -- Pink -- who they pushed away because of her failure to conform to White's personal standards of perfection. Out of their reach, Pink flourishes and literally becomes a different person, returning home as a unique gem-human fusion, Steven, to pick up the pieces of the broken home his mother left behind.

In Steven Universe: The Movie, Pink is shown to have repeated this cycle of abuse on Spinel, the gem created to be her best friend. Pink abandons Spinel in space in the way the other Diamonds used to abandon her in "time outs" in a cell on Homeworld. The damage done to Spinel is so severe, she then seeks to take it out on Pink's new form, Steven, and his planet, threatening to flood the Earth with an actual toxic chemical. Steven's attempt to console her almost works, but Spinel's trust issues are far too ingrained by this point; accusing him of trying to placate her with fake friendship rather than genuine affection for selfish gain, which is, as Steven points out, "his thing" for solving most of his problems.

In the end, Spinel has to be the one to break the cycle, and her resignation is rewarded when the Diamonds impose an unplanned visit on Steven. Recognizing that their fractured family has a place for Spinel that he himself can't give her, Steven suggests that Yellow, Blue and White adopt the former villain, and let the healing among antagonists begin. A more human kind of "fusion."

KEEP READING: Steven Universe: The Movie SHOULD Be the Series Finale  

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