The “Steven Universe” Movie Reminds Us That Change is the Only Path to Growth

Amethyst, left, Garnet, Steven, and Pearl on Steven Universe (Photo Credit: Cartoon Network)

There are few cartoons—few series as a whole—as impactful as Steven Universe. Rebecca Sugar’s cult-favorite series follows titular protagonist Steven (Zach Callison) and his adventures with the Crystal Gems, Garnet (Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), and Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall)—and, over time, an increasing number of gems who join the crew. The Cartoon Network series has been called “brilliant,” a “gem” itself, and an illustration of radical kindness. It’s also one of the queerest shows on television, full of quiet gender revolutions, and uses humor and light to offer strong political takes on everything from colonialism to mental health.

In August, Sugar and her team released Steven Universe: The Movie, and the buzz is still going months later. Steven Universe has worked its way into the hearts of millions, including many members of the Bitch staff, and the show’s devoted fanbase is passionate about how the series has unfolded. Given that so many of our team were invested in the future of Steven and the Crystal Gems, we decided to have a roundtable to discuss Steven Universe: The Movie, flesh out our reactions to where the series is going, and discuss the series overall impact.

At the start of the movie, everything is going great for Steven and the Crystal Gems. After watching all of the turmoil (and, at times, straight-up violence) of previous seasons, how did you feel watching the Crystal Gems exist in a space where everything is fantastic?

Marina Watanabe, social media editor: It was nice to see our friends (do fictional cartoon characters count as friends?) in a place where they actually had time to enjoy each other’s company and make progress. So much of the past series was about the Gems attempting to prevent and reacting to atrocities happening to the planet and humankind, so it was refreshing to see them thrive. However, because this is a movie and conflict inevitably needs to happen, this peace clearly wasn’t going to last.

KaeLyn Rich, executive director: After I got over the surprise of the time jump, it was really gratifying seeing all the gems leveled up into their next phase of life. The pivot to “the Diamonds are good now” at the end of Season 5 was abrupt and I’m glad for the time jump as a plot device to suspend some disbelief about Yellow just easily disbanding her dozens of colonies, White being kind now, etc.

That said, I have a hard time believing all is well now. You can’t undo a gazillion years of a tyrannical fascist regime in two Earth years. I’m hoping the next and final season dives into the aftermath of the decisions made between the Season 5 finale, “Change Your Mind,” and Steven Universe: The Movie. In the opening of the movie, it was good nostalgic fun hearing the recap of each Crystal Gem’s character development and to see the Crystal Gems strong and thriving. Obviously, it was interesting to factor in Steven’s literal (a neck!) growth and maturity as an older teen. I felt really sentimental for the show in its entirety during the opening sequence, particularly during “Happily Ever After,” and I found myself wondering if this was the end of the series. (I’m glad it’s not!)

Patricia Romero, community programs coordinator: Seeing Steven and the Crystal Gems thriving without having to fight made me happy but also a bit uneasy. I have become so used to them fighting to survive that it made it seem like things were just going to start up again for them. I think my own survival mode kicked in while they were laying on the grass without a worry. This show has given me a space to process my own feelings of survival, loss, and love. But while we are all healing in our own way, there’s always a way to break open another memory and then we begin all over again. There is no such thing as happily ever after.

Rachel Charlene Lewis, senior editor: The sort of soft happiness of the beginning of the film made sense to me; after all, Steven Universe has always done really well at straddling this space between “wow the world is exploding” and “LOL fry bits.” It would have been odd for the show to have depressing, scary tones, since, technically, the show has always been about a tragedy (the loss of Rose) without ever feeling tragic.

And then, of course, that sense of peace comes to an end with the introduction of Spinel. What was your initial reaction to her existence?

MW: Initially, I was put off by Spinel. I typically don’t like the aesthetic or values of old-timey, Disney-esque cartoon characters. I also don’t love musicals, so when I watched the movie with my partner, he looked over at me during Spinel’s introductory song and said, “Are you hating this?” Even though it was totally out of character for me, I ended up loving Spinel and what her journey represented. Also, “Other Friends” fucking slaps.

KR: Upon reflection, I have a lot of questions about Spinel. Where did she go immediately after she finally left the garden? How did she get an injector so quickly, assuming this all started with the live broadcast of Steven’s message the same day as the arrival of Spinel’s injector? And from whom? Is there an underground Nazi-like group of Gems planning to reign terror on the new Diamond matriarchy? To answer the actual prompt, I was surprised to meet a brand new Gem; I was kind of expecting Jasper or Emerald or one of the many other villains we’d already seen. I was thrown off by a totally new type of Gem we’d never encountered before.

PR: I initially had a mixed reaction to Spinel. Spinel wanted to hurt Steven, which has always been tied to his mom’s actions. So, I mostly thought about how Pink Diamond hurt Spinel. Sidenote: I really appreciate how Rose Quartz has developed over the years. It complicates the narrative of the dead mom trope.

RCL: I hated Spinel so much. It’s been so rare for us to see someone really out to get Steven; so much of her power was purely physical, so my hackles went up when she started punching him right in the face. I want to protect Steven, and that just wasn’t possible to do with her. I had a similar response—this is a bad person who will not come to understand Steven—when Steven was in the same space as White (even though, of course, that’s not how the show, or film, goes).

Spinel (voiced by Sarah Stiles) in the Steven Universe movie (Photo credit: Cartoon Network)

Rebecca Sugar has spoken at length about how she came to Spinel’s character design. What did you think of it? How did you react to Spinel’s design being so distinctly different from the design of the rest of the characters?

MW: I liked how distinct her design was compared to the other Gems. Her Mickey Mouse-inspired style immediately translates to audiences. The juxtaposition between her character design and her intense anger and hatred toward the Crystal Gems is a great subversion of the older animated shorts that she’s based on, which are typically very lighthearted and silly. It also makes more sense when you learn her backstory and the fact that she waited in the same spot for Pink Diamond for 6,000 years. Though the other Gems are probably similarly aged, her design intentionally looks outdated because her life purpose and function have been defunct for millennia.

KR: Spinel’s old-timey Mickey Mouse animation style was jarring at first. But I came to understand the artistic choice after learning more about Spinel later in the film and reading interviews where Sugar talks about the intent behind the design. I also came to understand that Spinel was created to be a clown or a toy for Pink, so her spaghetti arms and squeaky shoes make a little more sense in that context. She’s like a court jester and her only job is to be happy, lighthearted, joyful, and endlessly fun, regardless of how she really feels. Like other gems, her appearance matches her function.

PR: I think Spinel’s character design is well thought out. While Steven and the Crystal Gems have been healing after years of pain and destruction, Spinel was left behind and has been left thinking that Pink Diamond would come back. Being abandoned made Spinel believe that no one cared about how much Pink Diamond hurt her. She was given to Pink Diamond to make her happy, but Pink Diamond outgrew her and decided to ghost Spinel. One of the most notable lyrics in the song “Other Friends” is Spinel’s singing, “I’m the loser of the game you didn’t know you were playing.” That song gutted me.

RCL: It creeped me out so much because I associate so much of old-school character design with subtle—or not-so-subtle—racism, and sexism. Something in me knew deep down that this character would be toxic. I was also frustrated by Spinel’s character design because, despite the symbolism, the film introduced this entire layer that never existed—a best friend gem. I felt weirdly tricked by it. What else do I not know about this universe?

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The film delved into the concept of toxic friendships. How do you think the movie handled its depiction of this topic?

MW: The movie articulates the idea of toxic relationships really well. In one sense, the film is navigating Spinel’s toxic friendship with Pink Diamond, who very much took Spinel for granted and then abandoned her without warning. On the other hand, Spinel’s entire identity was tied to making Pink Diamond happy. In another sense, the movie is also showing how Spinel’s trauma from that experience informs her future actions. She takes her pain and anger at Pink Diamond and misdirects it at Steven and the Gems (and essentially all of humanity). As someone who has been in toxic and abusive friendships, it can be difficult not to have hang ups from those relationships when trying to trust new people.

Spinel’s reaction is really extreme, but I think it articulates the unprocessed anger, pain, and fear that one might feel when navigating abuse. It also illustrates how easy it can be to accidentally emulate toxic behaviors in future relationships when we don’t make the conscious choice to heal from trauma—in whatever way that might look like for us. In “Change,” Steven tells Spinel, “You can make it different/ You can make it right.” One of the great strengths of the movie is that it emphasizes the role of choice.

KR: I am 100 percent on Team Steven. I liked that he protected himself and put up boundaries. I think a younger Steven would have felt obligated to rehab Spinel, even if it put him in danger. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in a lot of friendships where there was a lot more “take” than “reciprocate,” but I relate very much to Steven as he tries to help Spinel and have empathy for her without taking on the responsibility of “fixing” her.

PR: Pink Diamond and Spinel didn’t start their friendship on an even plane. Pink Diamond is from Homeworld and Spinel was given to her by the other Diamonds as a form of entertainment. Spinel was seen as property—a power dynamic that shouldn’t be present when building a friendship with someone new. Pink Diamond didn’t think of Spinel as an equal.

RCL: I agree with KaeLyn. If Spinel had appeared in Season 1, the plot would have been all about how Steven and the gems helped “fix” Spinel. Instead, it felt like Steven erected a sharper boundary here. Yes, Spinel is hurting, but look at how she’s hurting Steven and his entire world to get revenge on someone who no longer exists.

How did you feel watching Steven once again coping with the loss of his family?

KR: Steven Universe touches on so many kinds of family relationships. I’ve never watched a children’s show that explores chosen family, toxic parents, loss of a parent, emotional attraction, same-gender love, and historical trauma in families so well. Steven has a much stronger sense of who he is, who he is not, and how he fits in with his various communities and families than he used to. Right up until the Season 5 finale, Steven is still grappling on some level with whether he is his mother or not. He gets a definitive answer in “Change Your Mind” (“She’s GOOOOOOOOONE!”) and I imagine that brings some closure as well as some fresh grief. “There’s no such thing as happily ever after,” is perhaps a dark choice for a kids’ show, but that’s the reality of healing from family trauma and grief and I was proud of Steven for figuring that out. There’s always more work to do.

PR: I was crushed. The movie opened with them enjoying a relaxing day and then things change very quickly. Spinel is set on destroying everything that Pink Diamond left her for. I just want Steven and the Crystal Gems to be happy. But this show has taught me that it’s okay to dig a little deeper when it comes to family and trauma. Healing is also a big piece of that, which comes up when Steven loses his family during the movie. Though it seems like things are smooth now that there’s peace in the universe, there are still people being left behind. As one relationship heals, another one pops up to the surface. Working through family trauma is messy.

RCL: What I’ve always appreciated the most about Steven Universe is that it’s not afraid to really push you to your limits in terms of painful emotions. “Here Comes a Thought” is pretty much always in my head; that song and the episode it comes from encapsulate the idea that we all hold on to these truly traumatic events and try to push them deep down, but we have to face them if we want to heal. Steven’s heartbreak felt true to the series.

Happily Ever After Song | Steven Universe the Movie | Cartoon Network

“Happily Ever After” is the song at the core of the film. How did you react to the song, especially in its continually shifting forms?

MW: I didn’t notice this initially, but I love that the first iteration of “Happily Ever After” mirrors the characters’ journeys throughout the narrative. The song foreshadows the key to restoring each of the Crystal Gems’ memories and senses of self. Amethyst sings, “I know now exactly who I’m supposed to be/ And it’s a part of this family,” which ends up being how Steven helps her get her memory back—by reenacting their memories and reminding her he’ll be there for her no matter what. Pearl is still healing from her codependent relationship with Pink Diamond, singing, “I was sure she set me free/ But in the end, I guess I never left her side.” When Steven and Greg fuse, they model a healthy relationship in their performance of “Independent Together,” and that becomes the key to Pearl remembering who she is. And then, ultimately, Steven must reject the premise of “Happily Ever After” in order to get his powers back. “Happily Ever After” is about reaching a point in life where you’re done growing and changing and things are finally perfect. But Steven realizes that point doesn’t exist and that his strength has always come from his ability to change.

KR: I am listening to the soundtrack right now to get in the headspace. Sidenote: I love Bismuth as a character. Uzo Aduba’s singing voice reminds me of so many caring, physically and emotionally strong, and sincere queer butch women I’ve known. She’s such a gentle rock for Steven at his lowest point. The theme of “happily ever after is a lie,” is a bold theme for a cartoon aimed toward elementary school-age kids. It’s not a surprise from Sugar, though. One of the hallmarks of Steven Universe is treating kids like they’re more than capable of handling complex topics and emotions. I unintentionally watched the movie with my toddler the night it premiered. I didn’t think she’d pay attention to it. She’s a little young, but she was drawn to the movie because of the songs. We’ve watched it many times since.

At first, I thought she was too young for it, but the messages about friendship and feelings resonated with her. It let us have more nuanced parent-kiddo conversations about why people sometimes do bad things when they’re angry, about choosing or not choosing forgiveness, about protecting yourself when someone tries to hurt you, about anger sometimes being a reaction to feeling sad. These convos are way more useful and interesting to her growth than the dichotomous good hero and bad villain  and blue skies happy ending touted by many kids shows. So obviously I like the way they anchored “Happily Ever After” as a song and a theme throughout the movie.

PR: I really liked how it shifted from everyone being secure in the phrase “happily ever after” to a not-so-sure-about-this-phrase thinking. It was a hard reminder for them that there’s still a lot of work to be done. Even though the universe seems to be in good shape, that doesn’t mean the work is done. There’s still a lot to work through.

RCL: What frustrated me about the song is that it felt like an intro to Steven Universe, and in my head, if you’ve made it to the film, you’ve seen the show. I wanted the songs, and the film itself, to be less of a rehashing of who these characters are and more of a pivot. The show grows so  much each season and pivots so beautifully, but the song’s concept and the choice to have us relearn all of these characters that I already hold so dear felt like a miss.

What was your favorite moment in the film?

MW: I love the whole sequence when we find out Spinel’s backstory and she sings “Drift Away.” I also specifically love the part of “Who We Are” when Bismuth goes super hard and sings “Weeeee are the Crystal Gems/ And we never give up/ No we never give up on our friends.” Her voice gets so deep and raspy in the best way. I love it.

KR: As a person who has watched the movie probably 20 times now (partially because Remi asks for it), I can say that one of my favorite moments is when the now-very-confident Sadie Killer a.k.a. Sadie Miller begins her set with a very cocky rockstar “Thank you, thank you, thank you for gracing me with your presence.” That outstretched hand and smirk on her face! Such strong badass vibes! Also I am very confused about Steg and why he has eight-pack abs, but also love the idea of Steg so much. All of “Independent Together” is just so fun and I could watch it a million times. The part where Pearl reclaims her self: “I’m the master of me!” The part where Steg butt bumps Amethyst. The part where Garnet rides lion into the sky. I enjoy every minute of it.

PR: Yes, Marina. I also really like when we learn Spinel’s backstory and when she is singing the song “Drift Away.” And double yes to Bismuth singing!

RCL: Oh, I love Connie. Her busting in on the scene on Lion with her sword and ready to rumble. Yes. She’s always been one of my favorite characters, and I hope we get to see more of her.

The theme of “happily ever after is a lie,” is a bold theme for a cartoon aimed toward elementary school-age kids.

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Following the movie, Sugar announced that we’re getting Steven Universe Future, an epilogue that is set a year after the movie ends. How are you feeling about a limited series that features even more of the Crystal Gems? Are there any lingering questions that you want the epilogue to answer?

MW: Echoing what KaeLyn said, I’m really excited to see how Steven and Connie’s relationship progresses. There’s a lot more to explore now that they’re teenagers and have a little more emotional maturity. Lapis Lazuli is another character I’d love to see explored more. I’m always here for more Lapis plotlines. I also want to see Pearl find a new girlfriend. (Whatever happened to the pink-haired mystery girl she gave her number to?) Obviously she doesn’t need to have a relationship, but I’m ready for her to finally move on from Pink Diamond.

KR: I really want to know what happened in the years between Season 5 and the movie, so I hope there are some flashbacks or context clues that help us piece it together. In the future timeline, I’m interested to see how Steven and Connie’s friendship develops as teenagers. I’d love some new fusions, particularly to see Peridot relax enough to successfully fuse on her own terms. Frankly, I also want some Gem conflict because I don’t believe that all the homeworld gems are happy with the new shift in leadership. I hope for a few gentle Beach City character episodes, too, that are not so heavy on the canon stuff.

I also have some basic questions: Where is Jasper? Where is Emerald? And please give us some context for Onion. Is he an alien? Is he a human? Neither? Both? I would be very sad to end the series without knowing, given all the episodes that have focused on or included Onion in key scenes. Please don’t let Onion be just a running gag.

PR: I like the idea of an epilogue. It would be cool to see how Spinel and the Diamonds are doing. How did their relationship develop when she returned with them to Homeworld? I would also really like to see how Peridot and Lapis’s relationship has developed. Similarly, I would love to see how Connie and Steven’s friendship develops.

RCL: As KaeLyn and Marina mentioned, I am so here, always, for queer Pearl. The episode with her hitting on that hot girl with the pink hair, wow, it changed my life. I’ve watched it so much. I want to see more of the gems, and for more of a sense of how Steven is doing. Steven’s journey of loving himself and loving his mother, but also being so frustrated with both of those things has kept me entranced for so many seasons. The last season did such a stunning job of illustrating that. There’s even a scene where Steven  holds his own body and laughs, wow. I want to see that same depth given to the trauma of Amethyst, whose plotline has felt a little light.

Also, Sadie and Lars. Lars is so different than he was in the beginning when he was this kind of asshole bully, and now he’s so giving. I want to see more of him and Sadie and how they are now, not just to each other but to others based on their new senses of self. I want to see more of everything, except Spinel, who I am still so stressed out by.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.

by KaeLyn Rich
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by Patricia Romero
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I am a student at Portland State University earning a degree in Women’s Studies. I like to read, walk, and eat breakfast.

by Marina Watanabe
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Marina Watanabe is Bitch’s social media editor. She hosts a web series called Feminist Fridays and has been told that she’s an “astrological nightmare.” You can find her on Twitter most days.