Antagonists in Steven Universe

This is another old Steven Universe post I wrote last year just after watching the episode “Bubbled”. Deep *Spoilers* for the show

When the larger plot of Steven Universe started to kick in, I wondered how the show would handle having actual, active antagonists. The first “face” of opposition we saw was everybody’s favorite angry little slice of pie, Peridot. A common trope in anime is the baddie who eventually changes sides and joins the heroes. We get to see that play out with Peridot, though it isn’t an easy road for her, and she still seems uneasy with things. Her path does represent the dream that Rose Quartz built her rebellion on, that a true, free life was better than even a high place in the rigid hierarchy of Gem Homeworld.

We have had one short glimpse of Yellow Diamond, but the one real “villain” of the show so far has been Jasper. She works well as an antagonist since she is not only an imminent, physical threat, but offers a fundamental challenge to the Crystal Gems’ beliefs. To Jasper, Garnet embodies a transgressive relationship, Pearl is a slave who doesn’t know her place, and Amethyst is a born failure. Jasper is the biggest threat to Amethyst and attacks her greatest weakness: her lack of self-worth and belief that she is flawed and unworthy. Jasper’s ultimate insult: “You could have been *me*!” hits hard. Fortunately for her, she has Steven for a friend. Together they are a force that Jaspar repeatedly demonstrates she can’t understand: two people working together to be stronger.

Steven’s conflict with Jasper is on a different level. Jasper simply refuses to believe that Steven isn’t his mother, and dismisses his own identity. Steven is left with only responsibilities of his mother’s legacy – and the guilt for the sins Rose Quartz may have committed in the past, actions that Steven is only just becoming aware of (and mature enough to process).

Jasper is ultimately, a character in her own right, though we see only brief moments of her inner self. There is her painful, codependent argument to Lapis to restore their fusion: “I’ve changed. You’ve changed me!” and her sad “Nobody who fuses with me wants to stay…” She never gives herself the chance to be more than the role she was born to. She won’t let go of the belief that Rose Quartz built her army of misfits and damaged individuals not to help them, but because people at their low point are easy to manipulate. (Which may have a grain of truth to it, from what we’ve seen of Rose).

Jasper, as a character with her own beliefs about the world, is in the end challenged by the *heroes’* worldview – and breaks rather than changes or grows. That’s quite an interesting arc for a baddie on a cartoon. We’ve yet to see much of the Big Bads of the show, the Diamonds, so there’s a lot more challenging storytelling for the show to explore.

Rose Quartz

A couple years ago I first starting watching “Steven Universe” and wrote about the huge impression the show was having on me. I first posted this in October of 2017 on my old blog. The conclusion of the main storyline hadn’t been aired yet, so I was still unaware of the major revelations yet to come.

I’ll be getting into some third season spoilers here. Spoilers are a big problem when discovering an ongoing series. It’s hard to even look at cosplay photos and not learn secrets.

A narrative technique which always interests me is when a story spends a lot of time referring to a character before that person ever appears on screen. When they do show up, can the actual character possibly live up to (or at least be as dramatically as satisfying as) whatever image the viewer has formed in their own mind? Some successes at this would be, say, The Third Man or… The Wizard of Oz, now that I think of it.

We hear about Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, from the first episode. We know she was a Gem, and in some manner, passed her life energy on to Steven so he could be born. For much of the first season we don’t even get a good image of her. There might be a quick shot of an old photo. Whenever the large portrait that hangs in the Steven’s house is on screen, a roof beam or something blocks her face. Later, we do see some statues of her, and we see a Rubenesque figure with long flowing, curly hair. We learn that she had healing powers, could converse with and control plants, and her spirt weapon was a shield (all abilities Steven is developing as well). An earth goddess, a nurturer and protector.

More episodes pass before Steven finds the VHS tape Rose made for him and we “see” Rose for the first time, largely supporting the mother/goddess image, though we also see the first glimpse of her and Steven’s father Greg’s relationship (and in a wonderfully disconcerting bit of character design, that Rose was about 8 feet tall!)

That all would be a cool example of the type of character reveal that I mentioned, even if it stopped there. But this is Steven Universe and we have only gotten started.

I’m in the series’ third season and am still learning about the Crystal Gems’ dark history of war and rebellion, but we have seen, through a slow accumulation of background lore, at lot more of who and what Rose Quartz was. Yes, her and Steven’s spirit weapon is a Shield – but Rose also wielded a Sword. She appears to be the one who lead the Crystal Gems against their Homeworld, and rallied them to protect the Earth, a world she had grown to love. Not just a Mother Goddess, she was a General in the terrible war thousands of years ago (the details of which I have yet to get to in the show). She was a figure of great strength that could inspire great loyalty (as we see in Pearl), and perhaps shift the destiny of empires.

So for thousands of years, she lead the Crystal Gems as protectors of the Earth, a place of fragile, mortal life that she cherished. And then she met Greg. In the amazing “We Need to Talk” we see a Rose who, while she is fond of and attracted to the very human Greg, still looks down on earthly things from a goddess’s point of view. She finds humans cute and amusing. It’s only when Greg has truly reached out to her, when he makes her see and love him as a real person, that Rose finally steps down and walks the Earth she has been guarding.

What happened next? Well, I haven’t watched more of the show yet! From what I have seen, the Gems originally came to Earth to mine it for its life energies, to breed and hatch new Gems from it. They wanted to consume Earth to make new life. What did Rose Quartz do, after falling in love with Greg? She too, chose to use the Earth to make new life, but not as a predator, but as a creator, a transformer, to make something new, to give birth to Steven.