Consent and Steven Universe
OK, so I am super duper late to the Steven Universe party. I finally succumbed to the heaps of Internet praise bestowed upon it for issues of LGBT visibility, etc., etc. and started watching the series this past year. At first I was like, “Meh, this is cute. Why are the episodes so short? Man, that’s one endearing theme song. Guess I’ll keep watching.” Then I worked my way up to, “Wow, I can’t believe they went there!” and eventually up to, “I’M NOT CRYING YOU’RE CRYING!!” And now I’m as likely as not to cry at any given episode of Steven Universe, because this show does not pull its punches. “Rose’s Scabbard”? “Monster Reunion”? “Mr. Greg”? Mr. FRIKKIN’ Greg??? I am, like, gone. I am so far gone it’s not even funny. Heck, sometimes I cry during Garnet’s “Stronger Than You” number in “Jail Break,” just because the message of love and empowerment is . . . actually really empowering.
And there’s a lot that has already been said about Steven Universe, so I am not sure how much digital ink can be spilled on analyzing and/or praising the show at this point that will actually bring something new to the table. But, I’m gonna try. And I am going to do so by focusing specifically (though not exclusively) on how Steven Universe approaches issues of consent and bodily autonomy. To talk about consent and bodily autonomy, I am going to look at three relationships in Steven Universe: Garnet and Pearl, Stevonnie and Kevin, and Steven and Lars.
SPOILERS for everything. Seriously, all the spoilers. Like, nothing but spoilers from here on out.
Garnet and Pearl
So, fusion is this amazing thing on Steven Universe where two characters can fuse into one, new character. It is intimate. It is becoming one person. It is occasionally — though not always — coded as sex. But even when it is not coded as sex, it is still deeply, deeply intimate. Maybe more intimate than sex. I mean, us humans aren’t literally merging into one person when we have sex. But characters on Steven Universe literally become one with each other through this process.
Garnet, one of the show’s three female leads, is a fusion. She literally is a relationship, as Steven says in one episode. Made of love, as Garnet says in another. And fusion is at the core of her being.
Pearl, one of the show’s other female leads, tricks Garnet into fusing with her, repeatedly, under false pretenses.
And it is hard to watch. Add in the fact that Garnet is coded-Black while Pearl is coded-White (or possibly Asian, depending on whom you ask — racial coding for alien “gems” can get complicated in SU, and is largely a result of character designs, the ethnicities of voice actors, and fan reactions), and the whole thing just gets even worse. And it was bad enough already.
I think that part of the problem here may come from the show’s inconsistent coding of fusion itself. If it were always coded as sex, this would be a fairly clear case of metaphorical rape. As it stands, this betrayal is a little harder to deconstruct. Because characters fuse to be intimate, true (and intimacy is a side effect of every fusion), but they also fuse for more practical purposes: to pool their physical, and sometimes intellectual and emotional, resources in order to solve a problem. That being said, however we read Pearl’s action, it is definitely a violation.
And Pearl never fully seems to understand that it’s a violation. Of Garnet’s body. Of Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship. Of Garnet’s being.
And that is a problem.
And Steven never seems to fully understand the nature of Pearl’s sin either. Maybe because he’s too “innocent” or maybe because he’s just too new to fusion to understand all of the implications. Whatever the reason, Steven’s reaction to Garnet’s upset is to want things to go back to normal. To want Garnet and Pearl to just talk it out, so that his home life will be peaceful again.
And that is a different, though related, problem.
On the other hand, Garnet herself? Is very much aware that this is a violation. And I think it’s Garnet’s point of view that the show privileges in this case. Does this erase all of the other problematic elements of the arc? No, not really. But I don’t think that the show glosses over the horror of what Pearl has done. In the episode “Keystone Motel,” Garnet is so upset by Pearl’s violation that she splits into the two halves of herself, Ruby and Sapphire. Sapphire and Ruby then have this conversation (transcript taken from the Wikia):
Sapphire: *sitting, facing away from Ruby* We must move past this, Ruby.
Ruby: She lied to us so we’d form Sardonyx! She tricked us; don’t you feel used?!
Steven: *stars in his eyes* Ruby! Sapphire! I uh-
Sapphire: You’re choosing to take it personally.
Ruby: *shouting, jumping to her feet* It’s fusion, Sapphire! What’s more personal to us than fusion!?
[Camera shows Steven watching, uncomfortable]
Sapphire: I know, you’re still upset.
Ruby: Oh, so it’s just me?
Sapphire: Of course not. *turns to face Ruby, expressionless, monotone* Can’t you see I’m completely engulfed with rage?
Ruby: Well, it doesn’t feel like it. *starts tapping her foot impatiently*
Sapphire: The sooner we forgive Pearl, *starts to levitate* the better it will be for us all. *floats onto the bed*
Sapphire, who has the power of “future vision,” can already see the future in which Garnet will forgive Pearl. Which will make things easier for the team, and ease the tensions at home. It’s not Garnet’s job to forgive Pearl, but Sapphire is looking forward to the conclusion of a fraught situation. When Ruby, for her part, points out, “It’s fusion, Sapphire! What’s more personal to us than fusion!?” I think that’s very telling. Fusion is more personal to Ruby and Sapphire than it is to other gems, because Ruby and Sapphire live permanently fused to one another. As Garnet, they are a fusion. For some gems (like Jasper, when she first tries it out), fusion is a means to an end. For Garnet/Ruby/Sapphire, it’s a lot more than that.
In “Friend Ship,” the rift between Garnet and Pearl comes to its conclusion when Garnet and Pearl are put into a literal “fuse or die” scenario. They have the following exchange. It is . . . problematic . . . at best (taken from the Wikia):
Pearl: *panting* Please! Tell me! How can I make you forgive me!?
Garnet: You can’t! You lied to me! You need to learn that there are consequences to your actions!
Pearl: I’m sorry! I… I couldn’t help myself!
(Garnet kicks the wall on Pearl’s side, in an attempt to slow the walls down.)
Garnet: I don’t want to hear your excuses!
Pearl: But it’s true! No matter how hard I try to be strong like you… I’m just a Pearl. I’m useless on my own. *starts to cry* I need someone to tell me what to do. (The walls suddenly stop moving. Amethyst pulls on her whip to bind two of the gears together, preventing them from turning. Steven pulls on Amethyst to provide support.) *holding her arms* … When we fuse, I can feel what it’s like to be you. Confident and secure, and complete. You’re perfect. You’re the perfect relationship, you’re always together, I just… I wanted to be a part of that.
Garnet: You’re wrong! I’m not as strong as you think! I fell apart over this. Ruby and Sapphire were in turmoil over how you deceived me. I came undone…
Amethyst: Woah, that really happened?
Steven: Hmm. *nods affirmatively*
Garnet: It’s not easy being in control. I have weaknesses too. But I choose not to let them consume me. I struggle to stay strong because I know the impact I have on everyone. Please understand, Pearl. You have an impact too. There are times when I look up to you for strength. You are your own gem. You control your destiny. Not me, not Rose, not Steven. But you must choose to be strong, so we can move forward. So I can trust you again.
Pearl: … I understand. I can’t give up anymore!
Garnet: Good! (At this moment, Amethyst’s whip snaps and Steven and Amethyst fall backwards. The whip disappears and the gears begin to move again, causing the walls to close in on Garnet and Pearl once again.) Pearl, there’s only one way out of this!
Pearl: Only if you’re okay with it.
This whole thing is just incredibly unfair to Garnet. The first thing Pearl does is ask how she can “make” Garnet forgive her. Which . . . what? That’s not an apology, Pearl. You’re not supposed to “make” someone forgive you. But at least Garnet knows that (“You can’t!”), and she lets Pearl know that. Pearl’s next tactic is to claim that she “couldn’t help [her]self,” which is just another nonpology, but fortunately, Garnet is having none of it. And Garnet’s responses to Pearl’s whinging in this scene are what make me think that the show is on Garnet’s side in this. Then, Pearl presses on, with a sob story about how inadequate she feels, how she wants guidance, and how fusing with the “perfect relationship” that is Garnet helps her to feel complete. Putting Garnet in the uncomfortable position of having to give a self-actualizing pep talk to her abuser. Then, Garnet implies that they should fuse so that they can escape the death trap they’re currently stuck in (the “fuse or die” plot device), and Pearl, at last, proves she has learned at least one thing with the line, “Only if you’re OK with it.” Garnet, of course, is OK with it, because she doesn’t want to die, and she doesn’t want Pearl to die, and Pearl probably knows this, so it’s not the most satisfying sign of character growth. Still, the show does imply that consent is vital when it comes to fusion, even when fusion is your only hope for survival.
Because I do get the sense that if Garnet had said no in that moment, Pearl would have accepted it, even knowing it could cost them their lives.
We Need to Talk About Kevin . . . and Stevonnie
For my money, some of the absolute best anti rape culture lessons the show has to offer are found in the Stevonnie episodes “Alone Together” and “Beach City Drift.” And this is largely due to the introduction of nobody’s favorite character, Kevin, who appears (as far as I can tell) only in these two episodes, as a kind of Stevonnie-specific antagonist. (Where is this kid the rest of the time?) Kevin is terrible. Kevin is so terrible that Connie and Steven both hate him — and Steven doesn’t hate anybody. Except Kevin. And what is Kevin’s sin?
Kevin doesn’t take “no” for an answer.
In “Alone Together,” Steven and Connie fuse into Stevonnie. Now, remember that a fusion is both a “relationship” and a person in their own right. Remember that fusing can stand in, metaphorically, for both sexual and emotional intimacy (even if it is not consistently coded as both/either). In the show, fusing has another, literal element that may be even more intense than sexual and emotional intimacy: becoming one person. This is Connie and Steven’s first time. This is Stevonnie’s first day being alive. Stevonnie is strong in their new form and excited about being alive, but they are also very vulnerable.
Stevonnie goes to a party, because they want to experience what it’s like to dance in public. Kevin, a jerk who looks down on “garbage people” less beautiful than himself, starts trying to dance with them, and doesn’t back off when they tell him to leave them alone. This makes them very uncomfortable. When Kevin continues to pressure them, Stevonnie, having had enough, starts angry-dancing at him in a deliberately unelegant way, splitting themself back into Connie and Steven.
Sure, it’s ‘only’ dancing. But for Stevonnie, Kevin’s unwanted attentions are traumatizing. And I honestly think that this episode provides its younger audience (and let’s face it, its older audience) with one of its most important lessons: no matter the situation, no one owes you intimacy. Even if that intimacy seems minor — a dance. If someone is making you uncomfortable, you have the right to tell them to stop. And that’s really powerful. Importantly, Stevonnie’s reaction to this event is never treated as an overreaction. Which brings me to “Beach City Drift.”
“Beach City Drift” is an episode of Steven Universe inspired by Initial D, a manga (and an anime) about kids who race cars downhill. Anyway, that’s not super relevant to my discussion in this post, but if you were wondering, “Where’s this weird kids racing cars downhill plot coming from?,” it’s coming from Initial D. So, in “Beach City Drift,” Connie and Steven are hanging out at Greg’s car wash when Kevin shows up. He’s rude to Greg, Steven expresses his hatred for Kevin, and Connie and Steven end up telling Greg about their experience with Kevin at the dance (transcript from the Wikia):
Steven: (Steven, in anger, growls) I hate Kevin!
Greg: Whoa, whoa, whoa! Watch the four letters, schtuball. Hate’s a strong word.
Steven: It’s a strong feeling, too.
Greg: Do you know that guy?
Connie: Well, kinda. When we fused into Stevonnie, we met him at the dance and —
Steven: He was a creep!
Steven: That’s five letters!
Connie: He kept asking us to dance with him, even though we said no. It was really… uncomfortable.
Steven: He didn’t even care about how we felt — At all!
Greg: (Sighs in exasperation) I had no idea that happened. I’m really sorry. That guy, he’s not even worth the time of day. Don’t even give him the satisfaction of thinking about him.
Connie: Thanks, Mr. Universe.
And I adore this conversation. In part because of what is said, and in part because of what’s not said. Greg never once acts like Connie and Steven’s reaction to Kevin is overblown. There’s no, “It was just a dance; get over it.” No, “He didn’t touch you. What’s the big deal?” (And it would be incredibly out of character for Greg if there were.) Kevin’s action at the dance is treated as a violation, because it is a violation. Stevonnie said no. He should have left them alone. End of story. Greg acknowledges their experience and offers sympathy for it. He then encourages them not to obsess over Kevin, which will become a sticking point for Connie, Steven, and Stevonnie later in the episode.
So, in two, 11-minute episodes, Steven Universe unpacks the importance of consent in social as well as sexual situations, and examines the relationship between consent and harassment. In a kid-friendly way that hones in on the importance of following your instincts in situations which feel threatening and on using open communication to express your discomfort to others. That is the kind of straightforward, pro-consent, pro-communication, anti-rape-culture, anti-harassment message I can get behind.
Lars . . . and Steven!
One major impetus for my making this post in the first place is my seriously, emotionally intense reaction to Lars’s character development in the last Steven Bomb, “Wanted.” These shows are 11 minutes each and I’m still freaking out over how swiftly and effectively the show overhauled a supporting cast member who’s been around since episode one in only eight of them. (And Lars was only a focus for four of those eight episodes.) If the amount of Pink Lars fanart I’ve been able to find is any indication, I am not the only one flipping out over this. (Uh, the amount of times I’ve Googled Pink Lars fanart is none of your business, nor is the number of fanmade pics I have collected of Lion and Pink Lars bro-ing it out together. Shut up. It’s adorable.)
Lars gets his autonomy messed with surprisingly often. In “Island Adventure,” Sadie maroons him on an island with her and Steven because she feels like he “needed this” and because she wants a chance to get closer to him. She’s not wrong, exactly; while on the island, Lars does learn, at least temporarily, to let go of some of his cynicism and to work colaboratively with others to survive. And it seems to improve his mood. And I will always love “Island Adventure” because it’s something of a gender-flipped Male and Female, and because Steven’s solo “Wherever You Are” is cute as fuck and always makes me happy. (“Let yourself just be wherever you are” is also some pretty good advice.) But this is still a reprehensible thing for Sadie to do. In “Joking Victim,” Lars fakes an injury to get out of work with Sadie, then sneaks off to play with the “cool kids.” In retaliation, Steven and Sadie prank Lars with a substance called “fire salt” that ends up making him breathe literal fire. He survives the experience, because cartoon logic. Most disturbingly, in “The New Lars,” Steven becomes so obsessed with wanting Lars to (a) confess his feelings to Sadie and (b) stop being “such a jerk all the time” that he accidentally possesses Lars, and spends a day in his body trying to “fix” his relationships. Traumatically, for Lars, everyone but Sadie actually prefers Steven-in-Lars’s-body. Which is just sad. Anyway, I’m pretty sure that Lars is the only character Steven has outright possessed. Steven’s possession of Lars in “The New Lars” may not be deliberate, but it’s still a significant violation of bodily autonomy, even if Steven, to his credit, at first declares, “I guess while I’m in here, I’d better do my best to respect Lars’s body and his privacy.” (In practive, this respect apparently just means that Steven won’t look at Lars naked.)
Anyway, all of these episodes (“Island Adventure,” “Joking Victim,” and “The New Lars”) have plots which are framed as ways of teaching Lars something. In “Island Adventure,” he learns to let go a little bit and work as part of a community (and to appreciate Sadie’s monster-killing abilities, because this is gender-flipped Male and Female, dammit, and women who can protect you and provide for you in the wild are deserving of your adulation). In “Joking Victim,” he learns how much he hurts Sadie with his callous behavior, and with the way he takes advantage of her affection to manipulate her (which is totally a thing that he does). In “The New Lars,” he learns how his regular, self-centered behavior comes across to others.
And Lars is self-centered. Lars is, by far, the most image-conscious character in the show, and he shows more care for what people think of him than he does for the well-being of any other character. Not because he’s evil or anything, but because he’s obsessed with his image and how it relates to a singular goal: becoming one of the “cool” kids. Lars wants to be cool. To do so, he distances himself from Sadie, who is not cool (and I do wonder about their relative ages and whether or not they go / have gone to school together) and from Steven, who is affiliated with all the “weird” gem stuff that happens in Beach City. In flashback, we also see that he cut ties with the uncool Ronaldo (with whom it seems he was only ever friends in secret) because he valued his image over their friendship. Even in Season 6’s “The Good Lars,” an episode in which Lars is, well, good, Lars continues to be obsessed with what other people will think of him, to the exclusion of all other considerations. He also cavalierly accepts help from cheerleaders Sadie and Steven without thanking them or offering them anything in return. (They don’t mind, because they “speak Lars” and interpret what he does say to them in a positive light. And also because they get to eat his “purple cake.” This episode is way cute. The ube roll gets its own theme song.) However, the fact that Lars is slightly more open about his insecurities and willing to accept help with minimal fuss is pretty much what makes him “good” in this episode.
Plot summary time! Lars spends all of “The Good Lars” prepping to actually hangout with the “cool” kids at an ironic potluck, only to bail at the last minute and then get abducted by aliens. A bunch of Steven’s friends get abducted, actually, and Steven eventually turns himself in to the Homeworld gem aliens in exchange for the freedom of his friends. He manages to save everybody but Lars, who gets himself stuck on the ship by running and hiding. Then there’s some epic space buddy bonding (“Stuck Together”), and eventually Steven and Lars end up fugitives on Homeworld (“Off Colors”).
And then some major shit goes down.
On the run from killer robots, Steven and Lars are taken in by a bunch of fugitive “off color” gems who constitute a kind of underground of misfit toys. These gems are all “wrong” according to their society’s standards: illegal fusions or ‘defective’ in some way. Steven, of course, says “I don’t see anything wrong with you guys.” Because he’s Steven, and he doesn’t. Lars is freaked out by the Off Colors at first, because he’s not used to a wide variety of gem body types, but comes to empathize with them when they reveal that they’ve been “hiding all [their] lives.” Not because they’re afraid, but because others are afraid of them. Lars has, by this point, established that he’s sick of running and hiding — sick of being “stupid and afraid” — so fear is on his mind. Rescuing Steven and Lars draws the killer robots (robonoids) to the Off Colors’ hiding place. Lars panics until Steven puts his hand on Lars’s chest (it’s a Lars/Steven thing) and says, “It’s OK to be afraid.”
And I have to pause here, because this line makes me so, so happy. Steven Universe is a show that’s great with emotions. (Pop Culture Detective has an entire video about “Emotional Expression on Steven Universe,” and I recommend it.) But my occasionally debilitating panic disorder makes the line “It’s OK to be afraid” especially resonant for me. Because at least half the time, one of the things that will feed a panic attack is my deep-seated sense of shame for feeling afraid. And when it comes to combating my irrational fear, or at least keeping it from escalating, acceptance is way, way more effective than resistance.
Lars, with his newfound bravery, which is actually just acceptance of the fact that he’s afraid, comes out of hiding to defend the Off Colors from the robonoids. He even repeats “It’s OK to be afraid” to himself. (Oh, Lars. I do that too.) Anyway, it turns out that the robonoids target gems, and Lars is human, so they won’t bother with him. (Lucky!) Lars fight off the robonoids, with an assist from Steven and Steven’s shield. Together, they defeat a few of the killer robots, which explode when they’re destroyed. Then there’s one left. Newly courageous Lars jumps up to ride it like a bucking bronco and destroys it. While he’s still on it. And it explodes. In classic setup-and-payoff fashion. (Hey, we all saw the others explode. I guess Lars just wasn’t thinking about that in the heat of the moment.) The robot explodes, Lars is knocked hard into a big rock, and falls to the cave floor, hitting the big rock again on the way down. At this point, he’s stopped moving.
Giving us Steven Universe‘s first on-screen death.
Me on my first viewing: No, they wouldn’t. Would they? Wow. Bold. But no, they — oh. Oh. Oh wow. He’s pink now!
Steven discovers that his powers have leveled up when he cries on Lars and accidentally raises him from the dead. Reanimated Lars has pink skin, pink hair, and a badass purple scar across his right eye. Together, in the episode “Lars’ Head,” Steven and Lars discover that Lars’s pink hair is like Lion’s pink mane: an interdimensional portal. With Lion and Lars as access points — you know what? The whole thing’s a little hard to explain, so I’ll let Steven do it (transcript from the Wikia):
Lars: You went back to Earth? What the heck? Is my head like a wormhole?
Steven: No, it’s way simpler than that. You see, I have a pink pet lion who belonged to my mom when she was still here, and it turns out I can go into his mane, and it transports me to a magical dimension where my mom kept a bunch of artifacts on a hill with a tree, and for some reason, I can’t breathe in there. But anyway, when I went into Lars’ head, I got transported to the same magical dimension, but it was a new part of it, but since the two are connected, I could reach the portal that leads out of Lion’s mane, which is back on Earth!
Yeah, that about sums it up.
This is, quite literally, pretty objectifying. And possibly dehumanizing — again, I’m talking specifically in a literal way. (Is Lars human anymore? Only a later episode can tell.) No value judgments at this point. And the fact that Lars is canonically Filipino (which appears to have been revealed or at least officially confirmed only in “The Good Lars”) while Steven, though half gem and half human, is coded White . . . complicates things. (And probably opens the door for a whole big analysis of racism in zombie narratives and how this arc potentially ties into some problematic Hollywood tropes.) And some fans are upset by this. And I get it. Makes sense to me.
At the same time, I really like this development for Lars, for a couple of reasons. One is a plotty, big-picture reason: Lars is a plot device now! We can go back and forth between Earth and Homeworld instantaneously, and there’s an in-universe explanation for it! That is way convenient. Clever, clever writers. The other is a more character-driven reason: Lars has always been image-conscious, wanting to fit in and wanting to distance himself from Steven, Ronaldo, and the “weird” things happening in Beach City. Now he’s a misfit among misfits, considered odd even by the “off Colors” who have taken him in — and who have decided to stay on Homeworld and help him survive rather than using him as a portal to Earth, because “Off Colors stick together.” (Gah! My feelings! I’m having feelings!) Whenever Lars does return to Earth, he won’t have an easy time “fitting in.” He won’t be able to distance himself from Steven and “weird” gem stuff, because he’ll be weird gem stuff, bound to Steven through, well, possibly pink magic undead duties of some kind, but more likely through just friendship and loyalty, because that’s how Steven rolls and that’s how this show rolls. But I like that Lars will be marked as weird, and marked as tied to Steven, because that will make things challenging for Lars in an interesting way, and also give him a chance to move beyond his obsession with his own image. (And how much fun will it be to watch every other character either over- or underreact to pink not-qute-a-zombie Lars? I’m betting a lot of fun.)
The topic of today’s post is consent, however, so I am going to look at how this development plays out in terms of Steven and Lars’s interpersonal interactions during the episode.
Importantly, when Steven revives Lars, he apologizes to him for bringing him back to life without his consent (transcript from the Wikia):
Lars: [Groans] What the heck just happened?
Steven (Hugs Lars) Lars! You saved us! You stopped the Robonoids, but – but one of them exploded, and – and you weren’t moving, and I started crying. [Gasps] I brought you back to life! It was an accident. I mean, I probably would’ve done that on purpose if I had known I could do that, but I didn’t really ask your permission, so I’m sorry.
Season 6 Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, take note. This is how it’s done. Steven doesn’t want Lars to be dead, and he’s pretty sure Lars doesn’t want to be dead, but he still apologizes for bringing him back without “permission.” (I kind of want him to start collecting signed affidavits from all of his friends and family now, saying that it is OK for him to bring them back to life.) A lot of TV shows wouldn’t even think of bringing a character back to life as warranting an apology, so I give Steven Universe props for this move, even though Steven admits he would have done it anyway.
Later, when Steven discovers Lars’s hair-portal, this happens (transcript from the Wikia):
Lars: Why is it doing that?
Steven: Lars, I think I know what this is. There’s something I can try, but no. You don’t want me going in your head.
Lars: You’re going to possess me again?
Steven: No. It would be more literal.
Lars: Then what is it?
Steven: Forget it.
Lars: Look, Steven, I’m not gonna get mad, okay? I trust you. Just help me out here. If I’ve got magic hair now, I want to know.
Steven: Everyone stand back.
Rhodonite and the Rutile Twins take a few steps back; after a brief pause, Padparadscha does the same.
Steven: All right, now just bend down.
Lars: (Bends his head down) Like this?
Steven: Now, you might feel a slight foot in your head.
Lars: Wait, what?
Steven, who once spent a day in Lars’s body blithely trying to live Lars’s life for him, now cares more about Lars’s autonomy than he does his chance to escape from Homeworld. They’ve got no food. They’ve got no water. The homeworld authorities are out to kill Steven. Aside from the Off Colors, Lars’s hair-portal is their only useful resource, and Steven does not ask to use it. Steven knows how much Lars hates “weird” gem stuff. He knows how much Lars hated being possessed. For Steven, that’s enough. He believes that Lars wouldn’t “want” him going through the portal, so he won’t go through it. Full stop. He’ll just die on Homeworld. (Well, he’ll try to find another way to escape first, but still. The situation is pretty durn dire.) This is kind of really awesome.
Lars, for his part, affirms that he “trusts” Steven, and expresses his desire to understand his new form. (For a character who has never been exactly comfortable with himself, this shows a lot of growth.) This is consent. Verbal, overt consent. Sure, Lars doesn’t know precisely what he’s getting into at this point, but once Steven starts . . . entering his hair-portal (sometimes I realize how weird these sentences are) . . . he’s nervous, but game.
Since Lars can’t go through a portal in his own head (Technically it’s his hair, but they keep saying head, so wevs), Lars insists that Steven go home without him, so that Steven, at least, will be safe. Steven is reluctant to leave Lars behind, but ultimately accepts that it’s Lars’s decision. Lars then upgrades their physical intimacy from awkward chest-touching to more traditional hugging, and, at Steven’s gentle reminder, lowers his head to let Steven through the portal one more time in a gesture which echoes Lion earlier in the episode. Eric Thurm over at The A.V. Club refers to “the way he kneels down to let Steven through like some sort of Arthurian knight” in his review of the episode. And that sounds about right. He was already kneeling to hug Steven, because Steven is way shorter than he is, but there is something that looks kind of ritualistic about this:
All of this is Lars’s choice. Fighting off the robonoids is his choice. Letting Steven through the portal in the first place is his choice. Staying behind on Homeworld is his choice. Even the sorta formal way he bends down at the end of the episode is his choice. The only time Steven tries to push him to a different course of action is when Lars insists Steven go back without him — because it “doesn’t feel right” to leave Lars there. (Interestingly, this reverses their dynamic in “Stuck Together,” in which Steven tries to get Lars to escape from the alien ship back to Earth without him, and Lars resists.)
And that’s all we’re going to see of Lars until . . . whenever. The next batch of episodes hasn’t been announced yet, and there’s a decent chance that we’ll get some Beach City filler episodes before venturing back to Homeworld territory. And it’s been a while since we had episodes focused on Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, so it would make sense for them to get some screen time before we check in with the Off Colors. But who knows? The Crewniverse could just hit the ground running with this whole “murder mystery” plot they’ve promised, and we could get a block of episodes with epic, space opera-y, planet-hopping adventure. Actually, all of those options sound pretty good, and the show has earned enough of my trust at this point that I’m willing to just kind of relax and see where it takes me.
Steven Universe‘s portayals of intimacy, racial dynamics, and bodily autonomy may not be perfect, but when it comes to issues of consent and communication, Steven Universe hits harder, and finds more success, than just about any other show I can think of.
Consent is important on Steven Universe. Very important. And it ties in with open discussions of emotion, intimacy, and trust. In Steven’s universe, receiving direct, verbal confirmation of consent can be more important than life and death.
And now for some bonus reading! Here are a couple of posts about race representation failure in Steven Universe that made me think:
- Bismuth” and Steven Universe’s Racial Coding Problem by Jamie Kingston at Women Write About Comics
- All These Black Characters and 0 Done Right — How Steven Universe Fails Its Black Fanbase, Part I. by Riley H