“Love trumps hate,” Hillary Clinton’s Internet army said in the days and weeks before Donald Trump shocked the planet. On Election Night, those words popped like once-jovial balloons, and it’ll take substantial time to reinflate them. Luckily, in this horrifying era, we can turn to Steven Universe to rediscover our sense of empathy and faith in humanity. “Gem Harvest” isn’t an all-time great episode, but goddamn if its message isn’t timed perfectly.
As with Steven’s last half-hour special, “Gem Harvest” brings a new character into the family—this time, literally. Uncle Andy (Aqua Teen Hunger Force’s Dave Willis) is the first of Steven’s human relatives that we’ve met, and he serves to remind us that Steven still struggles mightily with his unique, mixed-species identity. Hearing him lust for the DeMayo heritage, a huge hole in his heart that he’s only just realized exists, is crushing. But the real magic here comes from Andy himself.
The episode leaves much of Uncle Andy’s past shrouded in mystery, but it seems clear that in the real world, he would have voted for Donald Trump. He’s a white, ostensibly working class man who, over the course of “Gem Harvest,” expresses serious disdain for immigrants, unmarried cohabitation, and liberals (or, rather, “hippies”). None of these issues quite gets at the root of Andy’s problem, though: the terror of being left behind.
“It just doesn’t feel fair, everything got so different. I want everybody to stay the same, but they just didn’t,” he tells Steven. That sentence encapsulates the noxious combination of mistrust, worry and nostalgia that drove white, working class Rust Belt residents to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. Pundits will be conducting their election post-mortems for years, but many reasons they’ve cited for Trump’s stunning victory—economic anxiety, racial resentment, the culture war—come back to deep-seated fear of change. Like certain Trump supporters, Uncle Andy is disturbed by and angry with the perceived dissipation of his world order. Even though he retains his white male privilege (with a masculinity complex to boot), he can’t see beyond his own struggle to achieve purpose in a family and society that have largely abandoned him. All he knows is that there’s “not much for him down on the ground,” and all he has left is the sky’s faux-freedom, a form of utter emptiness.
The Gems here stand in for the modern, sophisticated progressive. Their open-minded moral code has led them to welcome the “illegal aliens” Peridot and Lapis into their midst, to abide Pearl’s deshacklement and Amethyst’s defects, and to accept Garnet’s permanent fusion. But their tolerance ends at Andy’s brash exhibition of the values he’s nursed since his brain gained a normative dimension. Before he even figures out what’s going on, he’s being squished by Lapis’ aqua-hand and threatened by Peridot’s drones.
The Gems’ apprehension is palpable throughout much of “Gem Harvest,” and even when it dissolves and they make an honest effort to connect, they end up marginalizing Andy. He’s not a Gem, and he shares no commonalities and very little history with them. It’s easy to see why Andy feels he doesn’t have a seat at the table, and why his analogue in America in 2016 might cast his lot with a demagogue promising to resurrect the past’s comforting ghosts. Peridot—and of course it’s Peridot, the Gem who can best relate to his alienation—takes an astounding emotional step toward him, but it’s not enough: Andy flies his plane toward some mirage of former greatness, one that’ll quickly disappear into lonesome anguish.
Even before it happens, we know how Steven will respond to this. Out of his many superhuman powers, his most idiosyncratic is his ability and desire to empathize with anyone. Factor in Uncle Andy being this new connection Steven wants to forge with an unexplored part of himself, and there’s no chance the flighty pilot is getting away. With love and fire, Steven will doggedly pursue his uncle until he melts his heart.
This hard-headed determination to empathize must become a driving force over the next four years if we truly want to make America great again. The country’s id has been placed on proud display in the Oval Office, and we now have to confront it in full view of the rest of the world. The way forward is to take action, to mitigate the damage that a Trump presidency might do, and, in the long run, to find a way to quell the anger that lifted him. The only way that’s going to happen is by channeling Steven’s better angels. Once we fully understand both the problem and the people who have the problem, the work of mutual healing can begin.
Indubitably, there will be danger. Steven jumps on Uncle Andy’s plane, and it almost takes them both down. (This isn’t the first time Steven’s empathy has almost killed him.)
Things are going to get ugly over the next four years before they stand a chance of getting better. When Steven is thrown from the plane, he can’t use his floating power, because there’s nothing happy about feeling forced into trying to connect with someone who hates everything you represent. It’s going to take superhuman gumption to learn more about people who feel so disenfranchised that they’re willing to ignore (or even embrace) the horrible things Trump has said and done. And some of these folks, the ones who like engaging in white supremacist violence on Twitter and in person, might be unreachable.
The happy ending of “Gem Harvest” may be a long time coming, if it ever arrives. Although Steven Universe is mature for a cartoon, it’s still far simpler than real-life America, and Trump supporters won’t see through new eyes after half an hour of convincing. But Steven serves to remind us that even as we fight the forces of institutionalized bigotry and cultural division in our country, our capacity to love needn’t and shouldn’t fade away.
Zach Blumenfeld recognizes that it’s easy to argue for empathy as a straight, white male, but he stands behind it as the best option from a psychological perspective. Feel free to disagree with him on Twitter.