Steven Universe is not your mama’s cartoon. Unless she’s into shenanigans and femme-centric genderqueer storylines. Then it’s your mama’s cartoon.
Steven Universe is the story of a half-human/half-alien boy named Steven Universe who lives with his three alien guardians (known as The Crystal Gems) in Beach City to learn more about his Gem (alien) heritage and powers.
One of the many animations of recent years following a 10-11 minute format and seemingly written for an audience that is both childish and adult at the same time (Childult?), Steven Universe will easily remind you of Adventure Time, The Regular Show, and others of its ilk. The colors are bold and in your face at times while sitting next to softer hues to create a unique look for the wacky character designs and beautiful landscapes (both alien and on earth).
But Steven Universe is so much more than just a self-aware program with shapes and fun alien violence; it’s a fun story with cute messages of various types of diversity and queer overtones. Here are my reflections on some of those queer readings.
SPOILER ALERT: ALL THE SECRETS! (But seriously.. This post tells everything about major plot points. You’ll be sorry…)
At first, fusion in Steven Universe seems to be a throwback to Dragon Ball Z–one of the many self aware homages the show pays to the well-known programs that came before it. You do a dance, you try to mash into one another, and it goes horribly wrong or awesomely successful. But as the show goes on, we learn that there’s more to fusion than first meets the eye.
Seriously. Spoilers. You’ll be sorry…
When Pearl and Amethyst fuse to create Opal, we learn about the practical aspects of fusion in the Stuniverse. It’s presented as a cool advanced level technique Gems can do to increase their powers. And we see it again when Garnet and Amethyst fuse to create Sugilite and when all three gems fuse to create Alexandrite. In all of these instances barring Alexandrite, fusion was used to increase strength to fight and enemy or do something that required massive physical strength.
When Steven and Connie accidentally fuse to create Stevonnie we learn about fusion as a bond between two people, the stability of the fusion relying heavily on the connection of the people involved. As Connie and Steven share a close friendship (some say a crush or longing for one another) the fusion stayed relatively stable.
In the case of Garnet, we see that bond in action as she has been stable for 5-6,000 years or more. We also see that the Gems that constitute her (Ruby and Sapphire) are in love and, when captured and isolated, want only to know about the others’ wellbeing.
The Gems themselves are not physical beings, so when they fuse they aren’t creating a being that’s “more physical”, instead they’re creating an experience.
“You are not two people, and you are not one person. You are an experience! Make sure you’re a good experience! Now go have fun!”
-Garnet, “Alone Together“
The way I see it, fusion is a flexible metaphor—used to represent the wide variety of queer experiences for us as viewers. Fusion is symbolic and metaphoric of the following: Solidarity, toxic relationship, same-sex/authority-despised queer love, conformity, and trans/non-binary narrative.
It functions as the bond between different people working together to complete a task. We see this in Opal, the fused form of Pearl and Amethyst. They are both headstrong in different directions but must work together to achieve a goal that is bigger than the both of them. When they fuse Opal, they demonstrate putting their differences aside to create united front. Noticeably, however, their differences are strong and the fusion is therefore unstable.
Toxic Abusive Relationships/Self-Sacrifice
The fusion between Jasper and Lapis Lazuliis one that I believe is a hideous look at the toxicity of abusive relationships. Jasper forces Lapis into a fusion against her will, the resulting fusion was Malachite, a powerful and hideous aquakinetic monster intent on destroying the Crystal Gems. Despite despising fusion as “a cheap tactic of the weak”, Jasper forces it on Lapis for the motive of gaining enough power to overcome the Crystal Gems (in particular Garnet so to avenge an ass-whuppin). Perhaps because the fusion was forced and Lapis is so strong-willed, she retained control over her water-controlling abilities and used them to restrain the fused pair, dragging them down into the sea as revenge. In this act, she also sacrificed herself for the sake of Steven (It’s my belief that she doesn’t care either way about the Crystal Gems). It is as though Malachite is the representation of a person staying in an abusive relationship to protect another person.
In the case of Garnet’s fusion, it functions as the bond between two people very madly in love. It is a universal message that can be read as many things, but the most likely reading is that of a same-sex coupling. The character Jasper is disgusted with the idea of fusion in the way a bigot might be with a same-sex relationship. We see Garnet singing about this in a very self-aware and BOMB song “Stronger Than You.” In this analogy, Garnet is a symbol of a strong love between two people overcoming bigotry and opposition.
When it comes to forcing a non-nuclear unit together into a “perfectly normal nuclear family”, Alexandrite’s fusion (Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl AND STEVEN!) is the best symbol. Alexandrite is monstrously huge and obviously out of this world. Aside from being fantastically barely humanoid, Alexandrite takes on the worst of the Gems’ personality traits as she tries to be a convincing “wife” for Greg (Steven’s father). It demonstrates the ugliness of trying to conform into something you aren’t—I mean, have you seen the body horror that is one face, two mouths?!
In the case of Stevonnie, fusion functions as the bond of a strong friendship, but I believe that it is supposed to be read by the viewer as a carefree positive trans experience. Unfused, neither Connie nor Steven are stereotypically feminine or masculine respectively, but instead both display wholesome existences in being relatively comfortable in their skins unhindered by “normative” standards. Stevonnie’s short-lived journey shows a gender-neutral kid/teen that I believe reads as a trans/non-binary gender.
In our world, trans and nonbinary folks don’t get to see positive carefree images of themselves—especially kids of color. At worst, they are dehumanized objects to mock as punchlines (often times punching bags as they’re the recipients of horrible violence). At best, there are messages of resistance and social-political struggle. Trans/nonbinary narratives are shaped as resistance to the status quo rather than shaping themselves according to their agents—trans/nonbinary people—and they are ultimately forced to be statements. Even my writing about this right now is a statement! The Stuniverse presents viewers a chance to pause and review the narratives they’re familiar with and, ultimately, presents the people who live similar realities to rewrite them.
My reading of the function of fusion is only one of countless many from an infinite number of queer folks around the web and around the world. For me, it represents a myriad of bonds between people that range from practical to intimate to abusive and sacrificial.
What did you think? Leave a comment below and let us know!
*All images featured in the body of this post are from the Steven Universe Wikia unless otherwise noted in the caption.