Steven Universe continues to prove itself an effective series that relays important messages and provides characters that allow its fans to speak to wider cultural issues. As a children’s fantasy story, it has the space to put social commentary in plain sight while passing it off as world-building. This is one of the great things about fantasy in general.
The most recent episodes as of this writing present to us a Peridot redemption arc which culminates in ten minutes of adorable shipping fuel in the form of Perithyst or Amedot or whichever ship name you prefer. Of course, this is (currently) just icing on the cake. Peridot’s dramatic shift in allegiances, though unintentional at first, has added some real depth to the story so far as, bit by bit, she reveals snippets of information both about this ominous “cluster” and about Homeworld.
Most intriguingly, we learn about Homeworld’s social structures and expectations through Peridot’s naïve yet blunt honesty. As someone who has lived and breathed Homeworld values for her entire existence, she can only accept them as natural and anything that contradicts them as “defective.”
Up until now, Peridot hasn’t had a reason to question her Homeworld view of the universe and it’s in her offensiveness (which is sometimes intentional and sometimes not) that we get a glimpse of a set of social structures present there.
We learn a few things about Homeworld’s social structures through Peridot:
- Bigger is better. The huge, bulky gems are the most powerful and most revered. This is perhaps why Peridot built herself some limb enhancements. By proxy, smaller, lankier gems are unimportant (Pearl).
- Individualism/noncommitment reigns supreme. “Fusion is just a cheap tactic to make weak gems stronger,” goes the memetic quote. Garnet violates this rule without a care. Peridot’s visible discomfort reveals that permafusion is seen as something disgusting on Homeworld.
- Hybrids of organic beings and gems are so illogical that Peridot doesn’t even know what to think of Steven, but concludes that he must not be a proper gem if he’s not even completely a gem to begin with.
You’re Just a Pearl
Peridot’s dismissal of Pearl is a metaphor for classism. Not only do her comments resurrect some of Pearl’s own insecurities, but they also confirm that those insecurities stem from how Pearl’s wider society views gems like her.* Pearls are mass-produced, weak, and not expected to do much of anything independently. After all, she’s just a pearl. She exists for entertainment (according to Peridot) and that’s it. While Pearl has spent her time unlearning this narrow definition of her worth, Peridot never considered that a pearl would be anything other than what they are on Homeworld. Yet Pearl is “defective” because she has surpassed the assumed and imposed limitations on her gem type. We, the audience, know that Pearl is a dynamic character who is just as competent on the battlefield as Amethyst and Garnet, but that dynamicness and competency defy the Homeworld –isms that have already defined Pearl’s worth and place in society. These notions are so deeply embedded in Peridot that she frankly states them as objective reasons why she should be the one to build the giant drill. Pearls aren’t technicians. They’re decorations.
However, the Crystal Gems don’t operate by Homeworld’s rules. Perhaps their “defective” nature initially prompted them to start breaking away from Homeworld’s values, but they certainly have physically separated themselves from that culture by living on Earth. Earth doesn’t have the same rules as far as gems go, so Pearl can become a master technician, Garnet can exist in peace as a permafusion, and Amethyst can remain blissfully unaware that she is essentially a runt.
Then comes Peridot to remind the Crystal Gems that Pearl can’t do anything on her own, Garnet is an abomination for remaining fused outside of dire circumstances, and Amethyst, the only proper gem, is still defective because Amethysts are supposed to be huge.
Garnet might be the most offensive sight to Peridot. She learns to accept Pearl as a technician like herself and she holds Amethyst in the highest regard given her other choices (and Amethyst is the only one she actually apologizes to so far). She might not know how to fit Steven into her mental framework, but he’s currently the one that Peridot trusts most. Steven also has the most patience with Peridot and is willing to explain to her why her actions are hurtful to the other gems. Because Steven never lived on Homeworld, the things Peridot says do not affect him in the same way they affect Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl.
Even so, Peridot can’t fully justify dismissing Steven, her first ally. All that’s left is Garnet, the one defect among her new team members that she hasn’t yet tried to understand. Pearl proved her smarts and Amethyst’s small stature seems a minor point compared to the greater offenses that Peridot finds among the Crystal Gems.
Fusion is a metaphor for a lot of things: intimacy, friendship, marriage, sex, subjugation, power, confidence–the list goes on. Fusion without consent is abhorrent, especially to Garnet, yet her existence as a permafusion goes against a core Homeworld philosophy about fusion. It’s only a means to an end. Gems should be strong enough on their own to achieve their goals, so remaining a fusion stomps on that value. It’s not acceptable for two gems to stay fused.
But we, the audience, know how strong Garnet is because of the love and commitment between Ruby and Sapphire. Even when they fight, they never let anything permanently come between them. They are their own gems, but they also recognize the power they have when combined. Their insistence and preference of staying fused represents long-term commitment for reasons beyond the strength they gain by fusing. It’s this display of commitment without an ulterior motive that disgusts Peridot and we see similar reservations to commitment in our own world.
Commitment takes work and it’s terrifying and some may even consider it old-fashioned. Garnet shows us both the stability and the challenges of permafusion–of commitment. Ruby and Sapphire don’t live in perfect marital bliss all the time. They struggle. They disagree. They literally tear Garnet apart for an entire episode while they process their anger at Pearl.
That episode is enough fodder to prove the point to Peridot that Ruby and Sapphire are, in fact, weak on their own and therefore use fusion to rely on each other’s power. That may be true–after all, we haven’t seen Ruby and Sapphire separately in battle very much or at all. Becoming Garnet could very well be the only thing that gets them through a battle. The notion that a gem should be strong enough to hold their own makes very logical sense, but I think the sharp aversion to permafusion comes not from the perceived wrongness of remaining fused, but of identity loss. Do Ruby and Sapphire exist independently within Garnet, or have they lost some of themselves for the sake of fusion? When Ruby and Sapphire fuse and choose to remain so, their love quite literally makes them a new creation. They are not merely added onto one another, but combined into an entity that didn’t exist before.
The exact nature of Garnet or any fusion is difficult to describe. It’s comparable to the question about Jesus Christ’s humanity and his divinity, as well as conceptions of the trinity. Most Christians understand Jesus as both fully God and fully human, yet that image is a challenge to grasp. Is Garnet both fully Ruby and fully Sapphire? Perhaps. If Stephen were to approach Garnet and ask just Ruby a question, Ruby would certainly hear it and possibly answer, but so would Sapphire and Garnet. They are all one entity as Garnet.
This shares some similarities with Christian understandings of the trinity. Trinitarian doctrines are not things that I profess to be an expert on by any means–in fact, I had to reference one of my textbooks from college to refresh my memory on the trinity. Christians talk about one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creator, Savior, and Life-Renewer–pick your metaphor. Such syntax helps us begin to understand the triune nature of God. We could use this same syntax to talk about one Garnet who is Ruby and Sapphire, giving us another way to understand the nature and relationship of gems in a fused state.
Further details of how well this comparison works (or doesn’t) will have to wait for another post. The point I want to emphasize is that fusion–permafusion especially–seems to be something that’s not fully comprehensible and therefore intimidating or even frightening to consider. This may be why Homeworld has developed such a strong opinion about it and why they believe that fusion must only be done in dire circumstances.
The “Home” in Homeworld
Peridot’s words and actions in these recent episodes, though hurtful, provide us with some interesting bits of world-building and great insight into the sociocultural context of Homeworld. The aversions to relational commitment, the compartmentalizing of particular gems into particular roles, and the elevation of bigger gems over small gems certainly mirror many aspects of our world. One last thing that connects them both together is that we have to say the word “home” whenever we talk about Homeworld.
Home has many complex meanings, not all of them good. Ideally, home should be a place of comfort and refuge. It could be a place one has come from or a place where one will go in the future (either in life or after death). Home can be a source of great joy or great pain. No matter our relationship with home, it’s always something close to us, something that’s been established in our lives.
So when we talk about Homeworld or analyze what seem to be some of its deep-seeded values, we subtly invoke the notion of “home,” which means we can’t fully dismiss it as a mere fictional universe. The things that Peridot says and believes–the things that the Crystal Gems have had to unlearn and reconstruct in their time away from Homeworld–are things that really aren’t too separate from many of our own realities after all.
How is any of this reversed? When we talk about –archies and –isms, we’re usually dealing with complex, established systems. Yet if Homeworld is our world in any sense, then we already have examples of unlearning and rebuilding in the Crystal Gems. We’ve seen Pearl struggle with and break out of the mindset that she’s only one piece of a mass-produced decoration. We’ve seen Garnet prove in battle that being a permafusion is a point of strength, not weakness, and Amethyst’s size was never even a significant issue until Peridot brought it up. By embracing their “defectiveness,” the Crystal Gems move closer to wholeness because they have recognized that Homeworld values are not unchangeable truths and breaking away from them can often be healthy.
Most poignant is how the Crystal Gems’ wholeness through defectiveness gives them a much better capacity to grant Peridot some grace as she begins to unlearn some of the prejudiced beliefs that she simply thought were essential truths. She believes that she’s merely stating facts instead of perpetuating harmful ideologies until she recognizes the falsity of her claims (Pearls cannot be technicians) and the effects her words have on others (Amethyst is a runt). The Crystal Gems don’t coddle her and they’re certainly not afraid to call her out (or put her on a leash). But they give her a chance and they understand by the end of “Too Far” the work it’ll take for Peridot to learn another way of conceptualizing gems and the entire universe.
*I’d be remiss not to link this excellent reading of Pearl as Asian-coded, which emphasizes her importance as a representation of non-white experiences.