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Marxism Comes to Steven Universe

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Marxism Comes to <i>Steven Universe</i>

Remember when Steven Universe was a light-hearted cartoon about a cheerful young boy, his three alien guardians and the shenanigans they cook up in their oceanside hamlet? Last week gave us two episodes that tried to remind us of that halcyon era. “Restaurant Wars” and “Kiki’s Pizza Delivery Service” were fun, but watching them, you had to feel like the show was trying to make an impossible return to the past.

This week’s episodes dropped all remaining pretense of innocence and naïve fun. Connie’s exciting first mission nearly turned into a disaster, while simultaneously miring Steven in an introspective funk. A day of fun with Amethyst did turn into a disaster when the two kids had to witness her brutal defeat. The show is still going to be funny, and Steven and his friends are still going to enjoy life the best they can. But there can be no more ignorant, childlike bliss for our protagonist, not after his most intimate encounter yet with the idea of killing.

Let’s get down to Bismuth.

BISMUTH, THE CHE GUEVARA OF THE CRYSTAL GEMS
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If, in the midst of a bloody war for your freedom, your world and your ideology, your side developed a superweapon that would kill innumerable enemy combatants, but bring about a swift and decisive victory… would you use it? And if so, how far would you go?

Such is the blessing and curse of becoming death, the destroyer of worlds. Bismuth built the Breaking Point to shatter Homeworld Gems and desperately wanted to use it. Rose refused; to her, no Gem deserved that fate. With each one’s hot-blooded passion and immovable sense of righteousness, their conflict could only end in one’s demise. And so, for the sake of conducting the rebellion in what she was sure was the right way, Rose Quartz had to poof her own loyal lieutenant, then hide their disagreement for the sake of team unity.

But was Rose’s way really correct, or did Bismuth have a point?

On one hand, we have the mythos of the pure-souled rebel, the freedom fighter whose refusal to kill helps them maintain moral high ground over their enemies. It seemed inevitable that Steven would fall into this camp—not just because of his preternatural empathy, his mostly defensive set of powers or his mother’s legacy, but also because it’s a common trait of the archetypal reluctant hero, especially in all-ages entertainment. Neither Avatar Aang nor Harry Potter, both of whom closely parallel Steven in terms of core values, ever killed anyone; in fact, both flat-out refused to end their chief enemies’ lives (Voldemort was killed by his own rebounding Avada Kedavra). Love trumps hate for these young protagonists, and just as that love fuels their fighting spirit, it also prevents them from killing at all.

This mentality is the Platonic form of heroism. We like to imagine victories for righteous causes that maintain the victors’ righteousness intact. It’s alright for freedom fighters to sacrifice their lives, we envision, but if they sacrifice their morality or betray any aspect of their values, then their triumph is tainted. Rose Quartz held this view of the Crystal Gem Rebellion, which considered all life forms’ freedom of being to be paramount. Rather than murder Homeworld Gems and sink to their level in the process, she chose to command her army under a strict moral code that drastically increased the Crystal Gems’ casualties. In the way “Bismuth” is presented, from the titular Crystal Gem’s Jasper-esque relish for violence, to Steven’s terror at using offensive weaponry, the Crewniverse seems to implore us to side with Rose Quartz, Steven, and their universal respect for life.

In the real world, though, things don’t tend to work that way. War generally involves killing one’s opponents, as horrifying as that can be psychologically, because killing one’s opponents is the most certain way to end opposition.

So in the end, the Crystal Gem Rebellion seems to have been a “just war,” a conflict in which Rose Quartz and her allies rose up to protect the innocent Earthling lives upon which Homeworld would visit suffering. We can infer that lots of gems were shattered in battle, given both Bismuth’s inquiries about “the others” and past visits to gem battlefields. With the introduction of the Breaking Point and Bismuth’s intent to use it to take the fight to Homeworld, though, the questions become these: would use of the Breaking Point have been justified, and to what extent?

To answer the first question, we can look at the jus in bello part of just war theory, which defines the bounds of moral combat. Its major components include the following principles: distinction, which requires that attacks only be carried out on military targets; proportionality, which seeks to limit collateral civilian damage; and military necessity, which decrees that even damage inflicted upon the opposing military should not go beyond what is absolutely vital to victory.

From what we know of the Rebellion, the vast majority of gems were involved in the fighting, so attacking any of them with the Breaking Point would have been justified and proportionality likely needn’t have factored in. The much greater uncertainty lies in the realm of military necessity. Was shattering gems necessary to obtain victory? Obviously, we don’t know what the ratio was of poofed to shattered Homeworld gems, but whatever happened, it was sufficient to end Homeworld’s colonization attempts almost completely. (We can hardly call the events since then anything more than skirmishes.) Assuming that the Breaking Point would have shattered far more gems, it doesn’t seem like it was militarily necessary—that is, unless it would have ended the war far more quickly, which is something we really can’t ascertain.

When Bismuth made that argument to Steven, I thought of the atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the main argument in support of their heavily debated use is that it saved hundreds of thousands of Allied lives that would have been lost in an invasion of Japan. But that debate has been thoroughly plumbed with evidence on both sides, evidence we simply don’t have in the case of the Crystal Gem Rebellion, because we haven’t seen it yet (not to mention that we’re discussing a fictional event here). Still, though, the Breaking Point isn’t a weapon of mass destruction, and if used in a controlled and tactical manner—say, only on Homeworld’s leaders—it doesn’t seem like there should have been too much objection to its use, particularly if it would have prevented more gems from being shattered.

The problem is that from Bismuth’s rhetoric, we can tell she didn’t just want to shatter the Diamond Authority: she wanted to take down their entire planet.

Everything about Bismuth—her hammer and not-quite-sickle hands, her occupation as a metalworker, her railing against the elite fighters in their arenas and the elite thinkers in their spires, her belief that a total and very violent revolution against all of Homeworld is the necessary and proper way to liberate all gems—suggests that she’d be considered a full-on Marxist revolutionary here on Earth. She’s as radical and charismatic as Che Guevara, who remains the ultimate, controversial human symbol of opposition to a hierarchical, capitalist regime. If her ideas were to become manifest, Homeworld would become a devastated wasteland of shattered gems, a mass grave upon which the survivors would have to build an egalitarian society from scratch.

True Marxists would say that such a bloody revolution is the only way to create real equality, that capitalism itself is the root of all human ills and suffering and must be overthrown at any cost. The analogy to Gemkind isn’t perfect, but given that Homeworld seems to represent a rigidly structured, highly technocratic, emotionless society, we can draw some fairly direct parallels to our own increasingly corporatized world. At the very least, both place a premium on efficiency, a process that tends to involve a devaluation of individual lives and the creation of great socioeconomic inequality.

But is it morally right to kill thousands of living beings and lay waste to an entire civilization in the name of a better future? Especially when the better future is merely a hope, not a guarantee?

The answer isn’t as clear as Steven Universe would have us think, and it depends on your view of human nature. Steven believes, like Rose did before him, that every gem has the potential for good. This is the root of his belief that killing is inherently wrong—no one with the capability of being good and leading a good life should have that opportunity taken away—and his healing powers are likely a symptom of that core value. Bismuth, on the other hand, is a hard-nosed cynic who believes that Homeworld civilization, and particularly the Diamond Authority, is beyond reformation. Its oppressive, imperialist nature will continue until the righteous Crystal Gems destroy it; no amount of empathy will be of use.

It’s crucial to recognize that both Steven and Bismuth are constrained by their personal histories, which have shaped their worldviews drastically differently. Perhaps if Steven had grown up during the Rebellion, he’d share Bismuth’s radical Marxist beliefs; perhaps if Bismuth had emerged after the war, like Amethyst did, she’d be more wont to empathize with her enemies. Although Bismuth’s ideology is more dangerous and far more susceptible to corruption than Steven’s, it’s understandable… and, what’s more, it could actually be the best option here.

There’s only so much that nonviolent protest can accomplish, because it relies on the generosity of people who hold power, and power is not easily given up. Even the greatest historical examples of successful nonviolent protest—the Indian Independence Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia—failed to truly change the capitalist power structure of their respective societies. Nonviolent protest itself is often co-opted and commodified by the very system it intends to destroy; the underclass remains an underclass, gaining more official privileges but not truly ascending the ladder; and at some point, patience rightfully runs out. A real world example: my editor and colleague Shannon Houston wrote a fiery piece last month wondering whether Black Americans should, at long last, give up on hoping that empathetic, nonviolent protest will finally afford them equality. I think it’s safe to say that Bismuth, if she were partial to writing, would churn out something similar. And so long as Earth remains a panacea for self-determining gems and showcases the potential fulfillment and liberty that Homeworld gems are being denied, she’d have a point. Furthermore, if Steven’s nonviolence does not succeed in bringing the freedom of Earth to all of gemkind, then maybe Bismuth’s Breaking Point-fueled aggression would be a just war after all.

An addendum: all of this makes me think that at some point, Steven might be put in a shatter-or-be-shattered situation. It would be very interesting to see how he’d handle that.

STEVEN BRINGS THE TRUTH HIS MOTHER NEVER COULD
Besides the whole Bismuth incident, this week sent us on a nice little Amethyst story arc full of self-loathing and inadequacy. But we already more or less knew how Amethyst feels about herself, thanks to the events of “On the Run” and “Too Far.” Losing to Jasper and then falling into a (poorly hidden by fake aloofness) depression is pretty much par for her course. The far more interesting part was watching Steven admit his own insecurity for the first time in a long while.

Over the past few weeks of episodes, I’ve noticed Steven beginning to embody a lot of his mother’s traits. Sacrificing Ronaldo’s well-being to resolve the Fryman-Pizza feud seems like exactly the type of difficult utilitarian decision Rose would have made in battle. His occasional, well-intentioned misinterpretations of human situations make a lot of sense in the context of what Rose did to Baby Sour Cream. He’s also begun to prove himself a powerful, decisive, empathetic leader.

And yet he’s not his mother. Steven admitting to Amethyst that this bothers him might be the most human, relatable thing he’s done on the show. At the very least, it’s the lowest we’ve seen his self-esteem. But it’s also exactly what Amethyst needed at the moment—not a Rose to pluck her out of the mud, but a Steven to wallow on her level, have some real talk and keep her company.

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Rose always did what was best for Earth and the Crystal Gems, Steven has heard from his guardians. A lot of times, that involved concealing facts from her friends. The circumstances surrounding Bismuth’s disappearance are the obvious example, but there are others. Do you think Rose didn’t know Amethyst was supposed to be a massive quartz soldier? Do you think she wasn’t at least partially taking advantage of Pearl’s unrequited love, stringing her on with encouragement for thousands of years to keep her ace soldier’s morale high? Do you think Rose admitted to her mistakes? Given the other Crystal Gems’ veneration of her, it at least seems possible that she kept up a facade of infallibility, a facade she tried to transfer to her fellow rebels.

Steven can’t even attempt to keep up a facade of infallibility; no self-honest human can. So instead of using the sheer power of charisma to convince others of their own perfection (“Rose said I’m perfect the way I am,” grunts Amethyst), he tells them the truth. Then, Steven helps them reckon with said truth, imbibe it, and move forward with confidence and authenticity. Self-belief on its own is powerful, but self-belief even in the face of awful realities and one’s own limitations is even more powerful. Gems before Steven fell into either the Homeworld “your purpose is preordained” camp or the Rose Quartz “you can be anything you want to be” camp. The truth Steven provides is a uniquely human perspective—we come by it naturally, thanks to our knowledge of our own finite mortality—and it’s the chief way he’s grown beyond her legacy already. Bismuth recognized that, and so should the other Crystal Gems, particularly Amethyst.

AND NOW, I EAT SOME WORDS

As several of you dear readers pointed out on Twitter—and I thank those of you who engaged me in respectful, critical dialogue—last week’s interpretation of the Jasper-Lapis relationship as BDSM was… not correct, to say the least. I’ve learned more over the past few days than I ever thought I would about the distinction between safe, consensual, pleasurable BDSM and a mutually abusive relationship, and upon enlightened reexamination, Malachite is definitely the latter. If anything, Jasper’s behavior this week—wrangling corrupted gems and consistently referring to fusion as a power move—further reinforced that. It sucks to be wrong, it sucks more to be wrong in a public forum, and it sucks even more when you’re wrong in such a way that a bunch of people think you’re gross, but there you go. If you still want a word about it, you know where to find me. I’ll be eating my humble pie and hoping the above analyses have convinced you that I’m at least somewhat competent at my job.

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