Did We Really Witness a BDSM Storyline on Steven Universe's Summer Adventures?

Summer of Steven: Week Two

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Did We Really Witness a BDSM Storyline on <i>Steven Universe</i>'s Summer Adventures?

It’s easy to forget sometimes, given the warp-pad adventures that send Steven Universe and the Crystal Gems to places like the Moon and a cross-country Gem Kindergarten instantaneously, but Beach City is really tiny. We got a glimpse of the whole town last week in “Steven Floats”—it’s maybe seven square blocks. A fun place to visit, for sure, but to live? You get the feeling that things would get boring pretty quickly. Youthful summers always feature waves of excitement between troughs of languid sun and nothin’-much-how-‘bout-yous; Steven’s is no exception, especially in his hometown.

As in the show, so in real life: last week, everyone was thrilled to be back, but this week, Beach City was at times a drag. “Kiki’s Pizza Delivery Service” is the first episode in a long while that has felt like pure filler, thanks to its endless pizza puns, its focus on the previously unexplored and not all that crucial Steven-Kiki dynamic, and its seeming lack of future implications (notwithstanding the unlikely event of Steven’s foot-rockets and bone-blasters transferring over from the dream world). To be fair, the episode did everything it could possibly do with its available resources. Watching Steven fly around in his Dream Rambo getup, fighting sentient cheese made for some gorgeous and trippy visuals, and the lessons he helped teach Kiki—that being a good friend or twin doesn’t necessitate being a yes-man or sacrificing all your me-time—is actually a pretty important one for kids to imbibe. In the first season, the episode would have been at least above average. But through no fault of their own, Beach City and its stories may have reached a point where they can only serve as brief respites from a Gem-centric plot that has thickened into a delicious and addictive soup.

Filler episodes are going to happen, though, and it’s important to appreciate that 1.) they’re important to the show’s pacing and 2.) in a vacuum, they’re mostly good episodes; the SU crew has a high floor for quality. “Kiki’s Pizza Delivery Service” and “Restaurant Wars” might not have been much more than fun little diversions, but compared to most summer troughs, they were exciting.

Anyway, this past week featured enough substance that it was fine for Steven to spend a little time with the Pizzas and the Frymans. Kid’s gotta take a break from Gem stuff sometimes, right?

LAPIS IS A DOMINATRIX

Especially when Gem stuff verges toward Fifty Shades of Grey territory.

When “Super Watermelon Island” aired in May and we got our final glimpse of Malachite, I shared my suspicion that the Jasper-Lapis fusion was a metaphor for some sort of abusive relationship, perhaps some sort of sadomasochism. The events aboard the S.S. Misery Lil’ Lappy have me convinced that’s not quite the case—it now seems exactly like sadomasochism. And not in the way I thought.

A fundamental question: was Lapis really a victim when she was fused with Jasper? We’d like to think of her as such. Jasper, as Steven says, is terrible. Lapis has a millennia-long history of lacking personal agency, a history she built upon when she trapped herself in Malachite on the ocean floor. We saw them tussle in “Chille Tid,” and it did not look like a good time for Lapis. But everything about “Alone at Sea” suggests that she was actually the dominant force in Malachite. Her struggle in the episode isn’t about getting past victimhood; it’s about coming to terms with the guilt she feels from having dominated Jasper.

The signs are multitudinous. When Lapis refuses to be put in charge of the boat, it’s because she remembers what it’s like to dominate someone else. When she admits that she misses Jasper, it’s an admission that, as perverse as she might think herself to be, being a dominatrix in Malachite was a pleasurable experience. And when she straight-up admits that she enjoyed taking everything out on Jasper, any illusion we may have had of Lapis being the abused party is shattered. Abuse victims don’t have the confidence to take their anger out on their partners; dominatrices do. And even though Lapis says that in retrospect it was bad to be in a relationship with someone she hated and enjoyed punishing, the fact remains that she enjoyed it.

For all you real film buffs out there, there’s also a lot of visual evidence to back up the Lapis-as-dominatrix theory. One example is the way the frame almost constantly looks up at her, making her appear very powerful.

Another is the suggestive bulge of the sea as she raises it to go “fishing” (and remember, animation happens frame-by-frame, so the Crewniverse deliberately drew this).

The most important is Jasper’s begging pose when she asks to be Malachite again, bringing herself below Lapis and surrendering power the way a submissive would do when pleading for a BDSM-type relationship to resume.

Lapis never looks as physically strong as Jasper by a long shot, yet Jasper never seems to threaten her, not even when she’s backed up against the boat’s bridge. If anything, Lapis is terrified by her own aggressive instincts.

Then, as if to confirm it all, Lapis literally fists Jasper thousands of feet into the air.

Steven doesn’t seem to be able to understand this. He’s a young boy who thinks of Garnet as the healthy form of fusion and sees Lapis as an inherently good, blameless, passive character in need of a confidence boost. It doesn’t make sense to him that she could or would be engaged in a mutually pleasurable relationship with Jasper, the current antagonist-at-large; from his perspective, Lapis saying she’s done terrible things is a textbook example of a victim of sexual assault blaming herself, a result of her “bad experience.” Ordinarily, we the viewers accept Steven’s worldview because he’s a wonderful hero with a precocious capacity for empathy. But in this case, maybe he’s got a blind spot for a relationship that doesn’t fit into his paradigm. Maybe Steven Universe is painting BDSM as inherently bad—a common view, and one that’s understandable in a children’s show, but not necessarily an inclusive one.

Obviously, this is all complicated by the fact that Malachite only ever happened because Lapis wanted to protect Steven from Jasper. At the time of their fusion, the Lapis-as-victim narrative ran strong, and becoming Malachite appeared to be the ultimate form of self-sacrifice: Lapis willingly subjecting herself to a bond with a Gem who we’ve just seen do some incredibly violent, evil things. If she were powerful in this situation, it seemed to be the power of a martyr. But even if that were all the case when Malachite formed, it doesn’t mean Lapis couldn’t have come to dominate it, enjoy it, and then have horrible feelings about having enjoyed it.

All we know for certain is this: we can’t just blindly label Lapis Lazuli a victim of circumstance anymore. The only malady to which Lapis is falling victim right now is her own guilt, which has left an indelible psychological scar.

THE SCARS OF WAR… AND LACK THEREOF

Lapis isn’t the only Gem who faced some serious emotional hurdles this week. Centipeedle came as close to returning to normal as a corrupted Gem can get, thanks to Steven’s returned healing powers (no explanation given or needed), and she spent her renewed sentience reliving the horrors of the Gem War.

We know the war was a terrible ordeal for everyone involved. Lapis got poofed and captured; Ruby and Sapphire escaped death numerous times; Pearl sacrificed herself over and over for Rose. But whereas they’ve all recovered to some degree, Centi seems to have developed a very severe Gem version of PTSD, courtesy of the Diamonds. Garnet describes corruption as a “torn fabric of the mind,” which certainly fits the profile of a war survivor driven to permanent psychosis by the horrible scenes of the battlefield. It’s actually quite surprising, and a testament to Steven’s supernatural empathy powers, that Centi is able to tell as much of her story as she does before breaking down in tears and reverting to her insectoid state. Most PTSD victims require years of therapy before they’re even able to approach their demons.

To me, though, the real insight in “Monster Reunion” comes in the form of Amethyst.

Amethyst, as we know, was born after the war ended. Her only knowledge of it comes from what the other Crystal Gems have told her and from seeing the corrupted Gems she’s helped poof and bubble over the years. Such a lack of experience is excellent for her mental health, in that she’s never had to suffer through the true horrors that accompany a drawn-out armed conflict, but it’s also an explanation for her immaturity and, at times, naïveté compared to Pearl and Garnet. Witness the impunity with which she addresses the idea of Centi’s corruption and the severity of Pearl in demanding sensitivity; in this case, it goes beyond Amethyst’s ordinary breaches of decorum. She knows what causes corruption, but she doesn’t understand the way the other Crystal Gems do.

That brings us to the moment that Garnet asks Amethyst to poof Centi.

Amethyst ordinarily relishes combat; we’ve even seen her seek it out as the Purple Puma. Here, though, there’s a certain reluctance to harm. We can tell Amethyst doesn’t want to poof a corrupted Gem, that it makes her uncomfortable because it’s bringing her into contact with all the suffering that happened before her appearance in the world. Perhaps that’s why Garnet wants Amethyst to be the one to do the deed: as a sort of lesson on the past, or as a way to help Amethyst come into a more mature view on Gemkind. She’ll always have the most rambunctious, spontaneous personality of the group, but poofing Centi—the best-recovered corrupted Gem they’ve ever seen, but still profoundly messed up—can only serve to display the full cost of the war to someone who didn’t live through it.

Then again, it might also just be that Garnet or Pearl would awaken their own haunted pasts if they were to poof Centi. They might not show it often, but the war almost certainly didn’t leave them without a scratch.

ANOTHER REASON STEVEN’S EXISTENCE MAKES NO SENSE

It’s all a moot point for Greg Universe now that he’s got millions of royalty dollars in the bank, but the man has spent most of his adult life near-penniless. Because this is Steven Universe and not Inside Llewyn Davis, his extreme poverty has mostly presented itself as endearing qualities: he’s Steven’s laid-back dad who runs a break-even car wash, lives in a van and thrives on simple pleasures. But holy hell, watching him bum around at Vidalia’s place is not a flattering display. If we only knew Greg from the scenes of him taking all her cereal, spilling on her couch and losing her baby at the beach, we’d have no choice but to conclude that he’s pretty irresponsible, if not downright selfish. At the very least, he’s nowhere near ready to bring how own child into the world.

The main message of “Greg the Babysitter” is clearly that Greg needs to grow up, that humans have the potential for personal growth—indeed, Rose claims they have an existential mandate to change as they get older, which is what makes them special. We see that by the end of the episode, when he gets himself a day job just like every other broke artist needs to do. But the major question that plagues me after watching him scrounge for food and busk on the boardwalk is this: how did he go from total destitution to intentionally making Steven in fewer than two years? (Baby Sour Cream allows us to date this flashback pretty accurately.)

To be fair, having a child is almost always far more a decision of love or lust than a decision of economics. Still, the Greg we see in “Greg the Babysitter” knows he shouldn’t yet be having a baby, particularly not with a woman who doesn’t need or have the food or money necessary to bring one up healthy. From what we can see of Greg’s life now, it doesn’t seem like his situation would’ve changed much between this point and Steven’s birth. So when he and Rose conceived their son (and figuring that Steven wasn’t an accident, which I think is safe to say given the anatomical complexities involved), it must have been under one of the following assumptions:

Steven would grow up in terrible poverty.
Greg and Rose knew some way to provide him with everything he needed.

The first of those is the stuff of true romantics, but it’s still crazy to consider. Greg knows the pain of having nothing, and for him to subject a child to that knowingly would go beyond any rational explanation. Of course, Steven’s perpetual essence of peace and love even under such dire circumstances would merely serve as further proof that he’s some kind of empathy superhero, and it would further the show’s message that love trumps everything. Still, though, Greg and Rose’s decision would appear incredibly self-centered, particularly after we’ve seen how they neglect Baby Sour Cream—Rose, in particular, seems to know nothing about human infancy.

The second presents a real mystery that, if you think about Steven’s current life, pervades the show. How do the Gems get him food? How does Steven have a television and everything he needs? It seems inevitable that we’ll eventually witness the discussions that Greg and Rose have about their baby-to-be, given that this show has a proclivity for taking difficult issues head-on, and I’d expect the circumstances surrounding Steven’s decently comfortable existence to be handled with grace when the time comes.

AND NOW, SEVEN THOUGHTS

I’m sure other people have recognized this before, but it’s worth noting that Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl don’t wear stars on their clothes in the flashbacks that feature a living Rose Quartz. They literally wear their grief on their sleeves now.

Poor Ronaldo can’t catch a break, and no one even feels bad for him…then again, it’s hard to feel bad for a teenage boy who reads Koala Princess.

Steven’s already appeared as five of the eight variations depicted in this promo illustration, which is a useful way of predicting what’s going to happen in the next two weeks.

Why hasn’t anyone in the actual culinary world thought of ketchup-infused fries and cream cheese-laced pizza bagels?

Sour Cream was born to make dirty drops.

Greg’s running through that money pretty quickly.

It’s been thirteen episodes now since we’ve seen Lion… is he just going to spontaneously reappear like Steven’s healing powers, or is there a reason he’s been gone?


Zach Blumenfeld still can’t believe he just wrote about BDSM being depicted in an all-ages cartoon. Follow him on Twitter.

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