All These Black Characters and 0 Done Right — How Steven Universe Fails Its Black Fanbase, Part I.
If the title isn’t a clue: Your favorite queer-awesome show fails on racial lines to a horribly deep degree, and nobody cares.
This is an explanatory essay. The people I will debate with know who they are and will approach me freely. The people I have no intention of discussing this with are likely blocked. Know which you are.
The Business End
First, a content warning: There will be discussion of rape, violence and abuse as they exist in the series, and as they are discussed in the fandom. Please leave at this time if these topics will cause you harm.
Second: I will discuss Pearl as primarily white, but occasionally Asian. The former is because that’s what I code her as based on her narratives, the focus on her character, and the things she’s allowed to get away with, the latter is because of the large number of Asians I have seen coding her as such and heavily identifying with her.
Third: Due to Amethyst’s AAVE, I will discuss her as a Black-coding character. Garnet, Bismuth, Jasper, and Sugilite are also going to be discussed as Black-coding. Sardonyx will be discussed as biracial Black, in particular, softened by Pearl’s part in the fusion. Lapis and Peridot will be discussed as specifically Asian-coding. Pearl is explained above. Steven, Greg, and Rose are white. (Don’t bother arguing with me. They are undoubtedly white.)
Wanna Discuss This Essay With Me? Know This.
- If you would like an explanation of why I used this specific coding, ask me privately on Twitter. It is not the purpose of this essay, which is mostly aimed at people closer to my circles in the fandom, and fans of color.
- I do not care about white people’s responses to this post. At all.
- For disclosure: I am a Black Asian.
- You need to read this thread on Twitter before discussion will happen.
- Also read this thread about the “coincidence/intent” arguments and why I will never entertain them.
So What’s the Deal With This Essay?
Steven Universe has been, from the beginning, doing a poor job of displaying Blackness, Black women, and Black femmes, both in their own rights, and in relation to the non-Black and non-Black coding characters around them. Garnet being queer appeared to be the saving grace, and for a long time I ignored warning signs and tried to believe so myself, but after Bismuth, I can’t ignore it any longer.
East Asians, white women, and Black men are not a replacement for good Black women writers. Steven Universe has NO Black women writers, despite having so many Black and Black-coding women characters, and that is likely a good start for the explanation of why they have repeatedly, since the start of the series, failed to properly represent Black women.
Garnet’s Early Role
As the Sound of Music song goes, let’s start at the beginning, with Garnet’s opening narrative.
The first 10 episodes see very little Garnet to begin with. The eleventh, “Arcade Mania”, demonstrates Garnet’s capacity to be leader very clearly, but she’s very distant as a character, closed off, quiet. We don’t have much of a clue at all about her personality or her thoughts, except that she has a tendency to be somewhat existential.
(In the meantime, Amethyst is painted as the lazy, slobbish, loud, childish Gem who literally eats garbage for fun. Three of those four terms are common negative stereotypes of Black women. However, Amethyst is at least painted as a whole person with a distinct personality and outlook on life, which is more than we can say for Garnet. “Tiger Millionaire” is an episode that makes Amethyst’s questionable traits endearing. In addition, Amethyst’s coding is less apparent than Garnet’s, especially in this early period of the series.)
“So Many Birthdays” is the first episode that demonstrates that Garnet has actual emotions besides staring blankly, but she’s not actually the focus, and we still know very little about her, except that she thought “violence was the answer”, and she loves Steven (which we could reasonably assume of all three Crystal Gems anyway).
“Violence is the answer”, eh? A curiously stereotypical first sliver of Garnet’s personality.
Garnet’s body itself is a stereotype, a “trademark” of Black women’s bodies, large bust, large hips. Some (assholes) have pointed out that Garnet seems very sexual because she touches her hips a lot, but how could she not…they run past her shoulder span.
The last thing I want to touch on is Garnet’s use of a gloves as a weapon, here. The very few Black characters that do exist in shounen anime are commonly depicted as brawlers; this means a LOT of fist, hand and knuckle weapons. Garnet is the newest addition to that family. That said, I won’t dwell on this point since it demonstrates an annoying trend rather than a serious problem.
Fusion Loves A Good Stereotype
For this section, I want to begin by pointing out some canon features of fusion.
- Fusion requires a mutual understanding and connecting “dance” between the two Gems choosing to engage.
- Fusion involves intense intimacy and thus can be very uncomfortable and unpleasant for mismatched Gems. It can also be the polar opposite for highly matched Gems.
- In cases of more mismatched Gems, the fused being seems to take on something of a dominant personality that matches the Gem currently with more control. (Ask me on Twitter to explain.)
Opal is the first and the least problematic of the emotionally charged fusions (if you ignore that she’s an imitation of desi deities with no desis involved…), but still manages to start a road of portraying Black women as masculine, particularly surrounding Pearl’s obvious and overblown femininity.
Pearl is the ballerina of the trio and when dancing, Amethyst is forced to take on the dance role that would normally go to a male dancer:
Amethyst takes this role both times we see the dancing leading up to an Opal fusion.
I want to note here that Opal’s mannerisms and personality seem to match much more closely with Pearl and very little with Amethyst.
Still, it’s really “Coach Steven”, episode 20 and the highlight of Sugilite, that really marks the obvious descent around the dynamic by which Pearl interacts with Garnet and Amethyst.
Sugilite — All the Worst Ideas about Black Women wrapped in a “Ghetto” Package
Sugilite is a travesty of anti-Blackness that doesn’t make any attempts to redeem itself from the beginning of the 11 minute episode to the very end.
Garnet and Amethyst both get a heaping helping of the Jezebel Stereotype before we even get to see Sugilite. Sugilite’s formation quite literally involves Amethyst jumping between Garnet’s legs:
This is only exacerbated by the fact that Amethyst specifically codes as your “ratchet” Black girl, speaking mostly AAVE and rarely deviating. To top the trashcake off, the two of them together become a huge, highly aggressive, out of control Black girl…voiced by Nicki Minaj, who was, around the time of this episode airing, being slammed for putting a sexual image of herself on her album cover.
Oh, but it gets better. Not only is Sugilite the most out of control angry ratchet Black bitch, but who is the only Gem that could possibly control her? Naturally, the delicate lily Pearl. Regardless of whether you code Pearl as white or Asian, there are a million problems with this narrative and Black women have gotten a hearty smack to the face. Pearl manages to turn Sugilite’s rage against her, causing her to hit herself in the head with her own weapon.
The most blatantly daunting part about this episode is that this subduing of a large Black woman is considered a way to make Pearl better as a character and a person. Pearl’s growth in this episode hinged on Pearl’s ability to tear apart a large, unrepentant Black woman. She sings a damn song about how she can’t be strong in a “real way” until she can take on this big, Black brute, for the love of Bob.
(This is one of the bigger reasons why I find it so strange that people consider Pearl Asian; this narrative of needing WoC to suffer to solve problems is one done so often with white women. For an entire series’ worth of examples, watch Charmed. Witches of color are constantly maimed and murdered to improve the three main white witches.)
And naturally, Pearl has always disliked Sugilite, and Pearl even tries to hold Steven back from even watching the act of Amethyst and Garnet fusing, which suggests that they are at the very least being extremely inappropriate, so much so that they’re rated over PG-13. And of that highly sexual, inappropriate union that Steven should not be allowed to see, is born the pinnacle of the meanest Black girl stereotypes.
What really annoyed me about Sugilite is that she’s a much more stable fusion than Opal, who comes apart fairly quickly to display how Pearl and Amethyst don’t get along. The rougher edge of Garnet’s personality (which we don’t realize is Ruby until much later) combines with Amethyst’s personality, and they become somewhat indistinguishable from each other, simply becoming Sugilite. Their mannerisms aren’t particularly polarized toward either Crystal Gem, they’re an expertly crafted dish. But is this painted in any sort of positive light, this smooth blend of two Black girls? No, instead, it’s considered an unhealthy connection between Amethyst and Garnet, their combined Blackness easily combining to make them all the more Black…and violent…and uncontrollable.
(Contrast with Opal, who is somehow perfectly controlled as long as Amethyst and Pearl can tolerate staying together.)
But the piece de resistance of fusion between our main three gems is really Sardonyx.
Sardonyx — How Do You Improve a Ghetto Black Girl? Add white.
Truthfully, this section can be aimed both toward Opal and Alexandrite as well as Sardonyx. All three of these fusions are demonstrated as viable, usable fusions, and all three contain Pearl. Meanwhile Sugilite, made of just two Black girls is as Garnet succinctly put it, benched.
In other words, banned.
And that’s how the episode starts. Garnet admits that Sugilite is a trainwreck and not usable, and Amethyst is clearly upset at the implication that her existence effectively “ruins” Garnet’s capabilities.
And so Pearl gets her shot, finally. Once again, Pearl’s overbearing white femininity is rubbed into our faces as Garnet takes on the masculine dance partner role.
Whose Femininity is Recognized? The Fusion Dance
This dance annoyed me from the beginning because until the moment that Garnet actually needs to touch Pearl, her dancing actually leans feminine!
When creating Sugilite, there is neutral gendering of both Garnet’s and Amethyst’s movements, and neither character does anything that polarizes one of them into a more masculine or more feminine role! But our Black girls can never be more feminine than Pearl, nor can they even be neutral around Pearl, and so it is merely natural that they be forced to take on masculine roles just for Pearl.
Taking a short aside, I want to point out two instances of Garnet’s femininity elsewhere in the series. The first is during her only solo song, during her fight with Jasper. We all know what Jasper looks like. Big. Beefy. Buff. Tall. Aggressive, much more so than Garnet or even Ruby individually have ever been. Black. It’s during this fight that Garnet gets to move in an undeniably feminine manner.
The second is during “Love Letters”, where Garnet’s pair off is…an actual man. Her complete lack of sexual and romantic interest in anyone else has recently become apparent, but the narrative can’t help making her a sex object just for Jamie, rising from the ocean like the Jezebel Goddess she is, making him completely forget his dream of being an actor because he has just got to focus on her.
So Garnet can be feminine…as long as it’s framed in a cishetero light, or she’s dealing with an even Blacker, an even meaner, an even bigger and more butch Black woman.
And, as long as she knows her place where Pearl is involved.
If this was the only issue with Sardonyx, I wouldn’t have bothered to give her an entire section, but this is just the tip of the iceberg of racialized, misogynoiristic problems with this fusion.
Sardonyx’s entrance is marked with a jazzy beat and a strange mashups of accents that dip between “classic” American (for Pearl), British (for Garnet), and, despite neither character having this accent, Southern. If you know a little about linguistics and the history of the Southern US accent, you know that it is actually an interesting offshoot of British accents. What’s interesting to me in particular is that Sugilite doesn’t develop this mashup, and how this twists implications of Sardonyx’s character.
More disclosure: My father is Creole, from Louisiana. There is a history concerning US Creoles, and how the term eventually referred to a certain group of part-white Black people, who ended up more educated and in better situations than those around them. The music, Sardonyx’s style and weird Southern accent infusion, as well as her word choices, speak to that in way that made me highly uncomfortable from jump.
To make that unfortunate implication a full blown problem, the entire narrative around this appearance is full of horrible colorist references that are not ever resolved…period.
Short history lesson: Mulattos in the US have historically enjoyed multiple benefits over Black people without any white heritage. They formed exclusive clubs wherein you needed to pass the paper bag test to be allowed in, and through those clubs helped each other gain access to education and money. This goes all the way back to the field negro vs the house negro; the children of white slave owners who raped their slaves were given better jobs (in the master’s house) and dominion over field slaves. They were often given more education as well, and after slavery was over, being mixed or part-white became a mark of status for Black people. This is still true today.
Sardonyx (conveniently) can turn her torso 360 degrees on a pivot much like a lazy suzan. Steven (with equal convenience) calls her “articulated” after seeing her do so. I’m sure most Black girls had to rewind a little bit to make sure they heard what they heard, considering “articulate” is one of the first things white people will comment Black people who “speak proper Queen’s English” on. It is not even vaguely a compliment, but instead a way to distance a person from their Blackness and revel in a perceived closeness to whiteness.
A notable remnant of anime is the “hime laugh”, a trademark laugh given to high class women who are usually dark in some fashion. Sardonyx, of course, laughs like this, cementing the idea of her as a “high-class” Black. She also drops contractions, which is often associated with appearing extra brilliant. (Contrast to Sugilite’s speech, which, while it isn’t exceptionally strong in AAVE, is rough and aggressive.)
Sardonyx’s aesthetic is that of a performer. She arrives from behind a curtain, she has a magic show, and she’s wearing a suit. Many and arguably MOST highly successful and famous early Black performers in the US were light skinned and/or part white; they HAD to be to gain the acceptance needed to work regularly.
Sardonyx’s attitude toward Amethyst and Sugilite is very clear: Sugilite, the ghetto Black girl, is lesser, and she, refined, part-white woman, is greater. She’s not subtle, and the narrative makes it explicit who she’s talking about! Steven asks her if she plans to “smash stuff with her warhammer”, and Sardonyx replies:
“Smash is the word one would use to describe what…someone else might do.”
The camera pans to Amethyst halfway through this line, and she’s clearly upset by what Sardonyx is saying about her and Sugilite. At this point, while Amethyst hasn’t been exceptionally pleased about Sardonyx, she hasn’t done anything flat insulting, like say…insist that Sardonyx shouldn’t exist despite being an obviously pompous jerk who enjoys ribbing Amethyst.
But Sardonyx doesn’t let it go here. Continuing directly from the insult, she goes on to provide a list of words that she feels describe her, with the implication that Sugilite is the opposite of those things. Naturally, the list details Sardonyx as a highly intelligent, scientific, elegant and beautiful being.
Unlike that ahem…other fusion.
It’s your basic “I’m better because I’m half-white and you’re not” scenario that is so familiar to so many Black girls, and it stung hard. It also demonstrates which Gem controls Sardonyx’s mouth; Garnet never insults Pearl or Amethyst, especially not about things that really bother them, so we know that it’s Pearl talking, at least at that moment. Pearl controls Opal. Pearl…mostly controls Sardonyx. Pearl is the feminine brain without which our two masculine Black girls cannot hope to maintain control over a large scale fusion.
(Another interesting point about Sardonyx, and in fact every fusion with Pearl we’ve seen except Rainbow Quartz, is that she is also visibly unstable. We know that smooth fusions become one person, one personality, like Garnet, like Sugilite. The line between Gems is blurred to the point of irrelevance. We also know that poor fusions polarize and have a lot of trouble staying together, like Malachite, like Opal, and like Sardonyx. Why does Sardonyx switch accents? Her demeanor and speech both switch mid-line while she is talking to Steven, and though it does eventually balance out in favor of Pearl, you can see that divide fairly clearly. So why is it that the smoothest, most natural fusion is painted as bad, while these fusions with Pearl are the useful options? Why are stressful fusions painted as better than a pleasant one? I’ll give you one hint…and it’s whiteness.)
The entire tone around her is even more nauseating when you consider that Sardonyx only has three appearances; one where she insults Amethyst, one where Pearl is raping Garnet, and a third where Garnet is forcibly revictimized and left with only two choices; fusing with Pearl again or dying.
That Time the Narrative Forgot Pearl Used Garnet as a Sexual Comfort Toy
Only Sardonyx’s second appearance is really treated as a problem at all, and not enough of one that anyone actually tries to help Garnet, who is left to split in two to fix herself after a blatant violation.
Pearl is even allowed to exert her white victimhood while Garnet is trying to tell her how hurt she was that Pearl would betray her so completely and utterly; Pearl has needs, you see.
Needs that supersede Garnet’s right to uh, not be raped.
She needs someone to tell her what to do. She needs a replacement for Rose, and as the new leader, Garnet comes closest to that dominance Pearl desperately craves.
And Pearl is swiftly forgiven. One episode after this arc ends, it’s like Pearl was never a lying, coercive rapist at all. Hell, there isn’t even a change to Garnet’s relationship with Pearl, not even the vaguest sense of a strain. Garnet doesn’t cringe at Pearl’s touch, or avoid Pearl. She doesn’t treat Pearl any differently that we can actually see. In fact, Garnet moves on as if the rape was a minor setback, despite having been so emotionally distraught that it is the only thing short of being physically forced by a new Gem weapon that we have ever seen split Garnet. Being faced with the Homeworld’s response to her existence, a sick melted amalgamation of confused, horrified, lost Gem shards, and considering that Rose might have purposely kept her out of the loop doesn’t even manage to do that.
Life moves on and everyone’s the same as they were before it happened.
So is the narrative, which continues to give us more and more detail about how sad Pearl is about Rose, no mention of how Pearl chose to use a Black woman’s body as a love proxy for the person she truly wanted. No mention of Pearl’s use of Garnet as a sexual comfort object.
And, Garnet’s been fairly sparing since then, the proverbial icing on this downright evil narrative cake the writers of Steven Universe served their Black fanbase.
Sadly, that wasn’t enough queer Black woman abuse and misrepresentation for one show. The second part of this essay will go into Bismuth, and why I finally had to put my foot down and quit this series.