Let’s Talk About Steven
Steven Universe is the titular character of a show about magical heroic aliens. Considering his role as the main protagonist, it’s very interesting that Steven is often cited as being somewhat off-putting for those starting the show.
At first glance, he seems like a very typical cartoon lead: a fat, cheerful, quirky kid who’s still stumbling through learning his powers. He’s goofy. He’s immature. He’s naive. He’s more likely to break out into song than wield a weapon.
Steven is all of these things. But he is also so, so much more. Inspired by creator Rebecca Sugar’s real life little brother, he’s a person filled with hope, kindness, bravery and endless empathy. In fact, he has proven to be one of the most captivating characters in a show already boasting a complex, multi-faceted cast. So let’s take a closer look at Steven Quartz Universe…
“When did you get so smart?”
The Steven who arrives on the scene in “Gem Glow” is mostly your typical kid. Sure, he has a family who fights monsters, and sure, he wants to join them in that. But that desire stems more from the ‘coolness’ factor rather than any real understanding of duty. He’s a carefree boy mostly interested in his video games, his favorite snacks, and having a good time.
From the very beginning, however, Steven’s essential defining trait– his compassion– was right in the center. Steven was a boy who’d eat through his beloved and endangered Cookie Cat stores to save his family. He was the person who’d listen to his Dad’s old music and sing along with genuine love and enthusiasm, adoring it for what it was. He was someone who’d prepare the perfect breakfast to share together, as a group, and go on a mission to find his whole family before eating it. He was someone who’d notice if you lost your bracelet, and then save it in his freezer for a year until he got the chance to return it to you. Steven has always been motivated out of love, his powers stemming from his desire to protect and care for others; it’s no wonder that his weapon is a shield.
That said, a big part of Steven’s development of the first two seasons is learning to hone and develop his empathy. While Steven’s always cared for his family and friends, he couldn’t always read or understand them. His scope of the world was small, and he had difficulty comprehending that people’s desires might differ from his own. He wants everyone together for a together breakfast, and doesn’t have the patience or maturity to understand the Gems might need to deal with other things first. He knows that Pearl thinks the lecture she’s giving him about Gem shards is important, but not as important as his lost pants. Compare this to the Steven we see later, who is able to realize that he doesn’t have full context for situations, but provides what help and advice he can regardless.
“I’m a Crystal Gem, too!”
Initially Steven feels like a sidekick or tagalong, the Gems the main event. As the show progresses, Steven learns more about them and the gap between them closes.
Amethyst was the one with whom Steven was probably the most ‘equal’ at the beginning, both of them existing on some level ‘below’ the other two Crystal Gems. They shared severe gaps in their knowledge with respect to the history and culture of pre-Rebellion Gems, thanks to the older Gems purposely hiding unsavory truths from them. Amethyst often acted as a ‘big sister’ or ‘cool aunt’ to Steven — hanging out together, playing pranks on him, being indulgent and ridiculous. There was always an irresponsible edge to her. Yes, Amethyst would teach Steven the basics of shape-shifting; but then, she never told him how to shift back, and she fully accepted the blame placed on her when Steven started transforming into an uncontrollable mass of cats. Steven and Amethyst both viewed each other as someone to have fun with, an escapism from the pressures placed on them by Pearl and Garnet. It’s only after supporting each other through multiple hardships — Amethyst’s breakdown in the Kindergarten, her self-esteem issues about her physical form, and the estrangement of Pearl and Garnet — that the two learned to rely on each other for emotional support as well. They still have a playful, friendly vibe, but both are more willing to give and accept advice from each other. It was touching to see how far they’ve come as of “Steven’s Birthday,” with Amethyst guiding Steven through his shapeshifting woes, and cradling him (literally) when he reverted back to his baby form.
In many ways, the opposite dynamic was present between Steven and Pearl. Pearl was the most traditional mother figure — constantly worrying, protecting and fussing. It was important element of stability in Steven’s life, but as he grew older, it started to become chafing and restrictive. Steven yearned for greater trust and responsibility… and eventually, Pearl gave it. Compare “Cheeseburger Backpack”, where Pearl is terrified of taking Steven on a mission which was a pre-selected ‘easy’ test, to “Hotdog Dufflebag”, where Pearl is yelling at Steven to join in the battle and help them already! Pearl has learned, the hard way, that Steven can protect himself and others. She values him both for that and the emotional support he gives.
Steven also desired trust from Garnet, but of a different nature. From the very beginning, Garnet was confident in Steven’s abilities, supporting him when others were doubting. But while Garnet would gladly carry Steven through booby-trapped ruins, she still kept him at an emotional distance. This was due in large part to her Big Secret. Once she was “outed,” and Steven’s entire reaction was star-eyed wonderment and instant acceptance, their relationship has developed into an openly affectionate one.
“Won’t you share this jam with me?”
Steven’s life is very atypical. While in some ways he’s an ordinary human boy, he’s still very isolated from humanity, even if he doesn’t realize it. Steven doesn’t go to school, and for all that he’s very friendly with most of the boardies, there’s a definite gap between them. This is what makes Connie so important; she’s a human friend of his own age. He can confide with her, get another perspective on his ridiculous destiny-laden life… but also, just hang out with her.
The interesting juxtaposition between the two, especially early on, is the clash of their mundane and magical lives, and how both of them feel insecure about their own background. Connie’s a fantasy nerd who used books as a way to escape her dull, lonely life. She’s ecstatic to experience these things for real, but feels there’s no way for her to measure up to it all. Steven, in comparison, loves magic, but it’s as ordinary to him as a computer, and he gets far more hyped about seeing a cool new movie. Furthermore, he’s used to considering himself bad at magic stuff, and he’s sure Connie’s going to see his failings in the same way that the Gems do. Together, the two encourage each other to see their own self-worth and feel comfortable in their own skin.
Very deliberate parallels are drawn between Steven and Connie’s relationship, and that of Rose and Pearl. In fact, the entire plot of the episode “Sworn to the Sword” hinges upon it. In Steven Pearl sees his mother; someone with great power, and the potential to do great things with it. In Connie, she sees herself; somebody ‘weaker’ who’s nonetheless pledged themselves as the other’s closest companion, able to fight at their side. However, it is abundantly clear that the dynamic between Rose and Pearl could be unhealthy, thanks to residual Homeworld attitudes of caste and value twisting its nature. Steven and Connie offer a blank slate, a chance to avoid the mistakes of the past. Neither is superior to the other. Steven is the raw power, the kindness and the confidence. Connie is the skill, the pragmatism and the intelligence. They complement and balance each other out.
It’s not exactly subtle that there’s a blossoming romance between Steven and Connie; Steven’s crush was evident ever since “Bubble Buddies”, and “Steven’s Birthday” made it clear that neither can imagine a future without the other. While pairing up the male lead with his female best friend is a definite cliche in animated kids shows, here it somehow never feels trite or repetitive. This is because the foundation of their relationship isn’t based around romance or ‘will they or won’t they’? Steven and Connie respect each other, enjoy each other’s company, and clearly share a profound bond, regardless of if they end up kissing or not. This is shown spectacularly through their fusion, Stevonnie, who simply radiates joy and balance. They illustrate the strength of the Jam Buds’ partnership, and the only question that remains is not if, but when, we’ll see them charge into battle with both sword and shield.
“Dear old dad, remember this too
In this whole wide world there’s no one like you”
A particularly adorable dynamic in Steven Universe is that between Steven and his Dad, Greg. It’s a rare, rare sight in stories to come across kids and parents who just like each other. Together they host friendly watermelon seed spitting competitions, watch silly TV shows, listen to and compose music. In a world full of magic and mysteries, Greg offers some grounding in his son’s chaotic life.
He also offers something uniquely human. The Gems are caring and supportive, but they’ve said it themselves: they know very little about humans in general, or human children specifically. Greg was the one who raised Steven when he was a kid, only handing him over to the Gems when Steven’s latent magical abilities started becoming too much for him to handle. While Greg now lives separately, alone in his van, he’s still an active part of Steven’s life. He’s the one who will happily indulge Steven in the sillier aspects of childhood, while also providing advice about life and relationships.
That is not to say Greg and Steven’s relationship is always good. Greg sleeps through the days; Greg and Amethyst have some messiness in their past; Steven’s birthday album has noticeable gaps between infancy and later childhood. In “Reformed,” when Steven is reading Which Crying Breakfast Friend Are You? results to his family, the Greg-allegorical Pining Grapefruit is described as “the sensitive older one who wishes he were a better role model.” Episodes like “House Guest” show off the worst in Greg, and hint at the root of Steven’s difficulty at looking past his own immediate desires. Luckily for everyone around him, Steven’s desires almost always line up with helping others — but sometimes, as in “Sadie’s Song” or “Winter Forecast,” his narrow focus on what he wants can complicate things. Still, this show is oft and fairly lauded for the dynamism of its characters, and Steven is no exception. Compare “Cheeseburger Backpack” Steven who fumbles the entire mission so he can use his new toy the way he wants to, versus “The Test” Steven who forgoes his (righteous) anger at the Gems to keep the harmony of his team intact. But Greg is more than his faults, and he is changing, too. He could have been Homer Simpson: bumbling and baffled, heart in the right place but never good at anything but that. Instead, he’s a cartoon dad who wants to do better and does, even in the face of traumatizing grief.
A recurring theme here is the interactions between Greg and the magical world. In a lot of ways, Greg does seem utterly separate, and in episodes like “Cat Fingers” and “The Message”, it’s Steven encouraging his dad to become more involved. At other times, however, Greg has displayed knowledge far beyond what one would assume. Greg knows more about the Gems and their history than he lets on, and he often offers Steven a unique and important view of them, as a human who’s lived among aliens since he was twenty-two.
“You’re going to be something remarkable, Steven. You’re going to be a human being.”
Steven’s relationship with his father stands in stark contrast to that with his mother, Rose Quartz. While Greg is something warm, mundane, and familiar, Rose remains shrouded in awe and mystery. Steven’s family adored Rose, and as Steven hears, time and time again, about how powerful, kind, beautiful, and wonderful she was, he understandably develops a sense of inadequacy. He’s desperate to live up to her legacy, a legacy he barely understands yet.
Steven is endlessly frustrated by his lack of first-hand knowledge about his mother. In “An Indirect Kiss”, while all the Gems are moved by grief and reverence simply standing in her garden, Steven exposits that he just can’t feel sad. Rose Quartz is just a story to him, one with no real emotional attachment. That said, one of the only times in the entire series that he lashes out angrily is when Lars insults her; “What do you know about my Mom? I didn’t even get to know my Mom!”
Slowly but surely, Steven has been learning more about Rose’s past, but one has to question how much comfort this knowledge has given him. It’s true that he’s learned about how Rose inspired strength in Pearl, accepted Garnet openly, and fell in love with the humble Greg. But at the same time, he’s seen the scars she’s left behind; Amethyst’s resentment, Pearl’s grief, Greg’s uncertainty. There are hints, still, that Rose Quartz’s mysterious past holds even darker secrets that he’ll one day need to confront.
For now, however, one of the greatest issues Steven faces is the issue of identity. Steven has come to learn, more and more, that he is not exactly Rose’s son in the same way that he is Greg’s. Rose passed onto him her gemstone, her very being, making him essentially a fusion. He has begun to wonder whether or not he’s really his own person at all, but rather some kind of derivative of her. Pearl has accidentally called him by Rose’s name; Jasper was incapable of recognizing him as someone else; and in “Joy Ride”, he wonders whether or not she may have been right. When asking Garnet what it’s like to live like a fusion, he questions whether “you forget who you used to be”. True, he was asking on behalf of Ruby, Sapphire, and the forced fusions… but perhaps he was asking on the behalf of his mother as well. At this point, Steven hasn’t been able to voice any of these fears and concerns to others, fearful of how they’ll react, but one has to wonder what will happen if he’s no longer able to hide them.
“I like everybody.”
Steven is a Gem, and Steven is a human, and Steven is neither of those things. In the entire universe, he is literally one of a kind. Where others might fold in on themselves under this crushing loneliness, Steven turns outward, projecting love onto everyone he meets. If he can’t be included by gen(m)etics alone, he’ll make sure no one else feels the way he does. He’ll befriend an acid-spitting monster and assign humanizing language to an aggressive robonoid. He will revel in a five-eyed, be-fanged, smashtastic Sugilite, and even be nice to Lars.
And Steven has of yet never been punished for believing the best in everyone. The “Peridemption” arc was set up deliberately so that Steven would question his faith in Peridot, but in the end, he was proven right to trust her. And besides, Steven is learning. The Steven of “Gem Glow” would not have child-locked Peridot and ran to the Gems with the Diamond communicator. And yet, and yet… is this a lesson Steven will have to learn to the fullest extent? Consider this quote from his voice actor, Zach Callison:
Steven’s greatest strength and weakness is the same, [in my opinion]: his love for all beings, benevolent or not. He’s a natural protector, and cares deeply for his friends and family. He assumes the best in the people he meets, good until proven evil. This backfires often, though…he sometimes places trust in people too easily. The gems are far more cautious in their interactions with outsiders… Rose, like the other gems, was around for a LONG time; she had gained so many years of experience and knowledge of Gems and the Earth by the time she’s even shown in Steven Universe. Steven is brand new to all of it, and he’s not yet equipped with everything he would need to be like his mother.
“I know if it were me, I’d really want to be
A giant woman!”
Shields. Healing. Magical plants. Heart. These are stock support superpowers, often given to a very specific kind of character: The Chick. Yet, this show takes the bold move of taking these feminine-coded abilities and giving them to their male main character.
In many other shows, this would be an excuse for some pathetic gags about being ‘girly’. Steven would bemoan his powers as being sissy and wish he could have a cooler, ‘proper’ weapon. Eventually, he’d come to accept their value, but that point would only come at the end of a long, tedious arc.
But none of that happens in this show. The only problem he has with his plant powers is their tendency to run out-of-control. Steven is overjoyed to heal people! He gets starry-eyed when he summons his shield for the first time! It goes deeper than that, too. Steven is a boy who utterly embraces and adores his own femininity. He writes songs about peace and love, claims pink as his favorite color, and will happily strut onto stage wearing a dress, high heels, and make-up.
This is a wonderfully refreshing change of pace. Perhaps it’s Steven’s own inherent Steven-ness, perhaps it’s because he’s technically the reincarnation of a magical space Amazon, or perhaps it’s because he was raised by three utterly badass mother figures, but Steven is a person who exists entirely outside of patriarchal constructs. For him, being ‘girly’ is not something strange or demeaning, but interesting and exciting. A particularly fascinating way this is expressed is through Stevonnie. The only person to gender Stevonnie in the entirety of “Alone Together” is the creep Kevin (“okay, bring it back, girl”) so that should be the only necessary in-text clue for the audience not to be like that. Just in case, here is word of god confirmation that Stevonnie takes they/them pronouns. Still, Stevonnie has a feminine edge to them, from their voice actor to their luscious locks. This might hint at their larger role in matriarchal Gem systems, or merely be an expression of Connie and Steven’s combined genders. Regardless, it is beyond wonderful to see a canon character who challenges gender norms even more deliberately than their component and main character does, who is desirable and carefree and happy just to be themself.
“If you’re evil and you’re on the rise
You can count of the four of us taking you down”
The extended version of We Are The Crystal Gems truly is a stunning tribute to the show as a whole, but in particular to Steven’s own growth. We begin with Steven literally as a child, wide-eyed and hero-worshipping, singing an adorable song about his own perspective on the Crystal Gems. It’s a limited, child’s view on what the Gems are — (“‘cause we’re good and evil never beats us!”), which throws the more complex, nuanced truth about their nature into stark relief. This portion of the song also utilizes the same audio from the original pilot, a meta analysis of how much the show has developed as a whole.
We’re treated to seeing the moment Steven officially joined the Gems, a beautiful Pearl solo as she reflects on the Crystal Gems’ duty to both Steven and Earth as a whole, then a montage of Steven’s most crucial defining moments from the first season. The montage is played over the silhouettes of the four Gems running down the beach — a deliberate parallel to the shot from the original opening. In that one, though, Steven eventually forced himself to run to the front of the pack, showing his initial desperation to prove his worth. In this one he lags behind, vanishing off the screen completely… Only to catch up, move to the front, and easily keep pace, representing how he’s entered their ranks as a true teammate.
In the next segment all four of the original Crystal Gems proudly proclaim their main motivations for all to hear. Steven’s comes last; “I will fight to be everything/That everybody wants me to be when I’m grown.” Honestly, it’s the perfect quote for him, conveying his positive and caring attitude, but there’s a definite layer of bittersweetness. Steven doesn’t feel he’s fighting for his own sake, but so that he won’t disappoint the ones he loves. Combined with the image of Rose Quartz looming in the background — eyes obscured, cupping him in her hands, a slightly sinister smile on her face, as though she knows something that we don’t — there’s the distinct impression of Steven being manipulated by forces beyond his control.
This interpretation is a little disheartening, but I find comfort in the fact that Steven does have other motivations. Motivations that this song spells out plainly, in fact. Just not by Steven; no, by the other Crystal Gems.
“I will fight for the world I was made in, the Earth is everything I’ve ever known.” This is what Amethyst sings, and it’s most obvious to see how it also applies to Steven. Steven is an Earthling through and through. Sure, he might get hyped about Gem magic, but that’s not the only thing that makes him go starry-eyed. This is a kid who loves fry bits, video games, cats and ice-cream. Steven loves the Earth, and he’s dedicated to protecting it.
“I will fight for the place where I’m free, to live together and exist as me.” Garnet’s motivation is obviously talking specifically about Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship, and how her existence as a fusion would be denied on Homeworld. But in many ways, it’s just as applicable to Steven, a love fusion himself. If the Diamond Authority can’t handle two different Gem classes combining, they’re hardly going to accept a human/gem hybrid with open arms. Beyond that, ‘together’ also represents how Earth is a place which allows Steven to live peacefully with everyone he loves, humans and Gems alike. Which of course leads to…
“I will fight in the name of Rose Quartz, and everything that she believed in.” Steven obviously doesn’t have the same deep, personal relationship Pearl had with Rose, but he doesn’t need to in order to embody her ideals. And what were those ideals? Equality. Compassion. Valuing life in all its forms.
That sounds like Steven to me.
Author: KK Bracken & Laura B
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