*MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE MOST RECENT EPISODE OF STEVEN UNIVERSE – READ AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION.
Self-love is a difficult thing to teach. Try as we may, at the end of the day it is up to that person to decide whether they love themself or not. However, in our current social climate, we are constantly bombarded with advertisements and social media influencers telling us that we need to look and act a specific way in order to live a successful, fulfilling life, which can make self-love a challenge to achieve. Although these advertisers tell us that it is important to be our most “authentic” selves, the images attached to them are almost always an idealized version of what the authentic self is supposed to be. This is especially hazardous for children in the pre-teen to teenage demographic because they are very impressionable at that age, and it is already so hard to figure out how to “fit in” once their bodies start going through drastic changes.
When I was 14 years old, I certainly did not love myself in the slightest. I wasn’t a “cool” girl, my clothes were baggy, my hair was frizzier than that of an 80s aerobics instructor, and I was starting to notice some… interesting developments in my sexuality. I too suffered from gazing longingly at alternative magazines and thinking that my life would be perfect, if only I had stick straight locks, expensive garments and a cute boyfriend by my side, just like the models and celebrities did. If only I were one of these people. Self-love was always just a bit out of reach for me.
When Steven Universe aired its most recent special titled Change Your Mind, I came to a realization: Steven Universe is the most important children’s cartoon of this generation. Of course, this is just my opinion, but the message that I have always received from Rebecca Sugar’s passion project is one that no other show has ever taught me, not even in my own adolescent years – and that is to love myself because I am me.
Since 2013, we have been watching Steven and the Crystal Gem’s long and arduous journey to pick up the pieces of what Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz had left behind. Steven, Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl have been through just about everything at this point: War, imprisonment, abandonment, space travel, and even death. While these external problems have all taken their toll on these characters, the even tougher challenges for them to face are ones that are completely internal.
While each individual Crystal Gem has their own fascinating arc that deserves its own piece, the character that I want to focus on today is the titular leading boy, Steven. Steven is 14 years old. Steven loves books, video games, delicious food, playing the ukulele, and making people smile. Steven likes to goof around and have fun with his guardians and his best friend, Connie. Steven is small, chubby, and jovial.
Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, was a member of an alien species. She led a rebellion against her own planet, Homeworld, 6,000 years previous, becoming a symbol of hope for oppressed Gems. At the same time, she lied about her identity, and eventually faked her own death, for she wasn’t a Quartz, but instead Pink Diamond, one of the Gems of the highest authority. In other words, Rose had started a war against herself. To say that there is some intergenerational trauma within Steven’s DNA would be an understatement. Again, Steven is 14 years old.
To make matters even more difficult, since the gem species do not reproduce, at least not in the traditional human sense, Rose had to give up her physical form in order to have Steven, meaning she basically had to die so he could live. The only piece of Rose that is left is her gem, sitting pretty on Steven’s belly button. This does not mean, however, that all of Rose’s baggage died out with her.
Steven’s hardest battle has always been figuring out just what his identity is. He’s not fully gem, but he’s also not fully human. He has a piece of his mother on his body, but he isn’t his mother. He doesn’t really know his mother, because he never met her. He can only come to understand her through what his father, Greg, and the other Crystal Gems tell him about her. In spite of all this, the Gems all look to him as if he is his mother. While they mean well, this puts way too much pressure on Steven’s shoulders. How can he love himself if he doesn’t know exactly who or what he is?
Throughout Steven’s arc, he struggles to live up to his mother’s legacy. He inherits all of her unique abilities, but it takes him a long time to master them. This would be normal by human standards, but definitely not for a Gem. Steven worries that he is failing everyone around him because he is not the leader of a great rebellion, or a symbol of hope for his kind. It leads him down a path of self-doubt, and at times, self-hatred. He believes that if only he were exactly like his mom, then he could fix everything that occurred thousands of years before his own birth, and make everyone happy.
Then Change Your Mind happens. Something beautiful happens. It’s the climax of the story: White Diamond, supreme ruler of the Gem species, pulls Steven’s Gem right out of his body. You’d think Steven would die and Pink Diamond/Rose Quartz’s physical form would be reborn, right? Well, watch this clip and see for yourself. If you’ve already seen the episode, well… watch it again, I need you to cry about that James Baxter sequence with me.
What’s been within Steven this whole time… is Steven. Not Rose Quartz. Not Pink Diamond. But Steven himself. Watching the tears of joy stream down his face as he embraces his other half shows us that his self-doubts can finally be put to rest, because he never needed to be anyone else but himself, the happy-go-lucky boy with a love for spreading joy to everyone. It is also at this point that we remember a very important message from Rose Quartz all the way back in season 1:
“Steven, we can’t both exist. I’m going to become half of you. And I need you to know that every moment you love being yourself, that’s me, loving you and loving being you. Because you’re going to be something extraordinary. You’re going to be a human being.” (Season 1, episode 35 – Lion 3: Straight to Video)
Steven is such a wonderful character, and it has been so emotional watching him grow and change throughout the duration of the show. To see him finally love and accept himself because he is Steven fills me with light. It is such an important message to send to your audience, and I really hope that Rebecca Sugar knows that her work has not gone unnoticed.
I know this all sounds really complex for a cartoon that is primarily meant for adolescents to watch, but that is kind of the point, because kids in that age range definitely struggle from the same issues that Steven does. Obviously, the context is astronomically different, but like Steven, adolescents all over the world suffer from identity crises, because they are expected to be something that they might not be comfortable with. They get pigeonholed into these categories like “prep,” “goth,” “nerd,” and my least favorite, “popular/unpopular.” It becomes nearly impossible for teens to identify as just themselves, rather than using labels forced upon them either by their peers or their own internalization process. I truly regret spending my early teenage years constantly defining myself as “emo,” “punk,” “outcast,” “ geek,” etc., when I should have been defining myself simply as “Dorrie.”
I hope that the kids and teenagers watching this show feel inspired to love themselves in this confusing and sometimes messed-up world that puts so much pressure on them to be something that they simply are not. I would have killed for a show like this when I was at that age, because it is so genuine in its messages and lessons. It validates our beautiful, authentic, and often strange identities, which to me is much more powerful than any preachy after-school special.
To be perfectly honest, I still struggle with self-love and acceptance. Every day is an uphill battle, and some days I get a little further up that hill than others. Self-love is not something that can be achieved overnight, but with the help of shows like Steven Universe, it does not feel impossible anymore.