Steven Universe Calls Out Fake Allies in “Rocknaldo”
(Episode 4.18)Cartoon Network TV Reviews Steven Universe
A long time ago, the Steven Universe team decided to cross-breed the most annoying corners of Tumblr and Reddit, dress the resulting offspring in a flame-covered shirt and cargo shorts and call him Ronaldo Fryman. Over the course of the series, Ronaldo’s mostly been used as a meta-critique of online fandom, living his life largely on social media and spouting conspiracy theories like a fire hose. As an erstwhile Redditor, I recognize that the parts of Ronaldo that I find obnoxious are my own worst online instincts: the obsession, the detachment from reality, the breakdown of normal social interaction that can happen on the Internet. And given that the Steven Universe fandom has gotten ugly in the past, Ronaldo is a crucial grounding mechanism. That said, he’s become most notable as a Cassandra whose wild speculations about the Great Diamond Authority and a human zoo have turned out to be correct. It’s a delicious twist of irony that the show’s chief skewerer of online fanaticism has only stoked that fire.
With “Rocknaldo,” though, we see a departure from Ronaldo’s purpose to date. The only conspiracy theory to be had is destroyed at the beginning of the episode, and then Ronaldo’s off the Internet for the remainder. What transpires next is a scathing take on how not to be an ally, a hugely important topic for the queerest show on television.
“I’m a Crystal Gem, too.”
Ronaldo says this when the Crystal Gems and Steven leave him behind to go on a mission, and he says it with a mixture of loneliness, despair and confusion. He wonders why belonging can’t just consist of taping a star to his chest and wielding a katana; he puzzles over why, even among these outsiders, he does not belong. Biology certainly plays a part—obviously, he does not have a gem—but that’s far from the whole story, because Connie (as Ronaldo notes) has become a full member of the team despite being fully human. What Ronaldo fails to recognize when he says the above five words is that he’s doing this for himself, not to help or better understand Steven and his guardians. If Ronaldo can’t derive some selfish benefit of community from this, what is he even doing in the beach house? As it turns out, he’s just being a “jerk-naldo.”
We can draw a natural parallel to people who insincerely claim to be allies of any marginalized community. “Rocknaldo” was written and storyboarded by Hilary Florido and Lauren Zuke, the latter of whom is gender non-binary and among the show’s most outspoken staffers when it comes to discussing LGBTQ+ themes. This episode more than likely comes from a very personal place, informed by instances of supposed allies gathering just enough information to be superficially conversant and then getting high off their newfound “status.” The Internet abounds with pieces about how to do this the right way—check out this list directly from GLAAD, for example—but the vast majority of them don’t even mention the obvious first step: Do it because you care about the people you’re trying to help. This wouldn’t seem to need mentioning, but for some folks, donning the safety pin or joining the Women’s March or flying a rainbow flag (or taking the name “Bloodstone”) is more a masturbatory display of self-identity than an authentic expression of solidarity.
Most of the time, there’s a mixture of selfish and selfless motives in allies’ minds; all human behavior, with the rare exception of pure altruism, is imbued with some self-interest, even if that’s merely a sense of fulfillment. The key is to be aware of this mixture and ensure that the more righteous motives are always in the mental driver’s seat. Signs that this is the case include, first and foremost, shutting the hell up and allowing marginalized people to do the talking. This is Ronaldo’s most obvious failure in “Rocknaldo”—he not only fails to grasp who the Crystal Gems are and what they do, but also actively denies Steven a voice and his very Gemhood. For a real world analogue, imagine a white member of the NAACP telling black people that their own racial experience is faulty, that the white member is more a black person than the actual black person. (The 2015 Rachel Dolezal controversy wasn’t quite that extreme, but it fits the contours of this discussion.)
And Steven gets rightfully pissed! This is the second straight episode in which he’s snapped at someone, and while he’s had his fair share of indignant moments since early in the show’s run (at least since Season One’s “Mirror Gem”), his anger feels different now. It isn’t filtered by his empathy anymore, spurting forth like lava from a volcano and incinerating its targets. My best guess is that the wasteland of Steven’s spirit, something we saw quite clearly last week, is beginning to counterbalance his tendency to make peace and step into others’ shoes. Maybe hormones are playing a role as well: Harry Potter fans will remember that series’ protagonist going through a particularly explosive period in The Order of the Phoenix, in the aftermath of Voldemort’s return and Cedric Diggory’s death; Steven’s experienced similar levels of trauma of late, and he’s also 14. By episode’s end, he’s cooled down enough to give Ronaldo a stern talking-to, but I imagine we’ll be seeing Steven’s temper flare more often in the coming episodes.
Also of concern is the fact that, before cooling down, Steven puts the blame upon himself for not acting like a Crystal Gem. We’ve seen this inward-pointing finger before—a sign of the self-loathing developing within Steven—but here, it’s more emblematic of the problems faced by marginalized people more broadly. In my review of September’s “Onion Gang,” I wrote about how Steven is essentially a mixed-race child, and mixed-race children are far more likely than their non-mixed peers to develop mental disorders because they have trouble building a self-concept. The problem resurfaces in “Rocknaldo,” except that this time it’s brought on by a so-called “ally” who perverts the idea of “love and acceptance” to exclude Steven from his own narrative. Steven catches himself this time—unlike most minority groups, he and the Crystal Gems are superpowered, so they can’t really be kept down for long—but all is not well in his mind as conflicting forces of empathy, doubt, resentment and confusion duke it out.
In the end, “Rocknaldo” redeems its antagonist, because this is Steven Universe, where not a single character lies outside the possibility of redemption. And Ronaldo wasn’t a distinctly bad person to begin with, either—all it took was to be “truthed so hard he died” to wake him up to his selfishness and produce a legitimately helpful guide to standing in solidarity with the Crystal Gems. But the point is that it shouldn’t be incumbent upon minority groups to get real with fake allies the way Steven has to do here. Genuine empathy is hard, especially in a Ronaldian world where we increasingly live for and posture through our online personae, but it’s an essential component of social responsibility for empowered groups.
There were some funny little meta-jabs thrown into “Rocknaldo,” most notably Steven’s description of their mission as “the usual—fighting monsters, sharing emotions” and the passage from Ronaldo’s “Ronal-phlet” about the Crystal Gems hating men.
I wonder if this episode was written before the nasty online harassment that caused Zuke to leave Twitter last August. If so, the line about Ronaldo deleting his social media is just sort of sad; if “Rocknaldo” post-dates the incident, the line’s a nice splash of self-deprecating humor.
I was surprised that Steven just rolled with Ronaldo’s idea of having a crushed-up Gem coursing through his blood. Shattering a Gem is… kind of a big deal.
I’ve written in the past about Steven’s shifting attitude toward death—particularly in “Onion Gang,” where his wild oscillation between absurd levity and unrealistic gravity bothered me—but here, his reaction to Ronaldo passing out seemed realistic and pained. Well done.
Ronaldo’s response to the reason Steven doesn’t use his Gem name: “That’s rough, buddy.” Nice Avatar reference, guys.
Zach Blumenfeld is like Daredevil, but instead of fighting crime at night, he writes about pop culture. Follow him on Twitter.