Discovering Yourself a Fan of the Problematic
The tragedy of Bismuth
The hundredth episode of Steven Universe ‘Bismuth’ has just aired. From a technical standpoint, the episode is fantastic. From a different standpoint, it’s a dash of icy water in the face.
I’m not black. I have had the luxury of never noticing what happens to, and around, the black-coded characters in the show. As far as I was aware, Garnet’s coded as a black woman and she is portrayed positively, so what problem could there possibly be? (This turns out to be a silly, superficial take, but more on that later.)
For the most part, Steven Universe is a show I have been able to enjoy nearly uncritically. I did notice certain things: the prevalence of intact heterosexual, or at least male/female, relationships over lesbian ones — the boardwalk characters who are romantically involved are in female/male pairs (Sadie/Lars, the Maheswarans, Ronaldo/Jane, Vidalia/Yellowtail, etc), and so are most of the primary ones (Rose/Greg, Steven/Connie — you can debate the latter since they form Stevonnie). Despite the majority of primary characters being coded as lesbians, there’s only a single intact lesbian couple: Ruby and Sapphire.
And then there’s the fact that the show’s only large butch woman*, so far, has been not only a violent brute but an abusive one who needs to be contained, controlled, and changed: Jasper. Her only path of redemption, fans speculate, would be if she’s brought low, made vulnerable, and then shown the light by Steven. But it’s just one character, I thought. There could be others. The next large butch woman to come along would, surely, be nothing like Jasper. She’d probably be nice and mellow. Maybe she’d be a Crystal Gem.
*Rose Quartz is large but while I think she’s a positive portrayal for her body type, but she is not and has never been butch. There’s also something deeply troubling in how she is coded white and feminine, a charismatic and gentle leader dressed in a white princess gown next to the ‘scary, out-of-control’ black butch women like Sugilite and Bismuth.
And so she is. Bismuth is cuddly, openly emotional, friendly and welcoming to an Amethyst she must realize is abnormally small. She hugs, she plays, Garnet and Pearl are delighted to see her again. She is taken aback by Steven’s existence but adjusts quickly. She patiently accommodates his ‘rituals’ of badminton, card games, video games. She’s kind and lovely.
By the episode’s end, she turns out to be an extremist and a violent brute who needs to be contained. Certain parts of fandom are already calling her ‘nuts’, ‘crazy’, or evil.
‘The big butch woman is a scary violent brute’ has become a pattern; both Jasper and Bismuth have hurt the precise same ‘dainty femme’ character, Lapis Lazuli, and both have menaced (and then tried to kill) the same small innocent child, Steven.
And then I started seeing reactions to this episode from black fans.
If the title isn’t a clue: Your favorite queer-awesome show fails on racial lines to a horribly deep degree, and nobody…medium.com
‘Be Yourself! …Not Like That’
It’s necessary to belabor the obvious that not every black person came away from this episode with the same reaction; that not every black person would agree. It is also necessary to belabor the obvious: as someone who’s enjoyed the show almost uncritically, it would be the easiest and most comfortable thing in the world to ignore black fans who were unsettled by this episode. It would be. I could write them off as ‘reading too much into it’ or being overly emotional, or something condescending and dismissive like that. I could get back to hoping — and have I been hoping forever — the problems I noticed would eventually be dealt with. I could get back to squealing about the show.
But while noticing that something you like turns out to have more problems than you realized ‘feels bad’, it doesn’t feel half as bad as when those problems impact your sense of self, identity, and how you are treated in real life.
It’s not just that Bismuth is a big, butch woman; she is also a black woman. It’s not just Bismuth, it’s Bismuth and Sugilite — both coded black, both violent extremists who are out of control, and both of whom must be punished or incarcerated because they threatened a white child and a smaller, femme non-black woman. It’s not just that Steven is able to chase Jasper off and defeat Bismuth in single combat; it is that as he grows up, he asserts a male authority over his (queer, female, of color) parental figures who are war veterans with eons of experience. The Crystal Gems may be variously coded queer women, but at the end of the day, the white baby boy they raised will grow to lead them and succeed his mother. You can be anything, Rose Quartz says, but you can never be better than the narrative’s designated chosen one who is gifted with an inheritance of power and authority.
It’s not just this, it’s not just that. It’s been a pattern arguably since the show’s beginning, and it’s shocking how much of it I have missed in my rush to squeal how queer-positive it all is. To give you some idea of my ignorance, I didn’t realize that Amethyst was coded black, or that subsequently Sugilite is a very poor representation of black womanhood until Bismuth appears to one-up that. Be yourself, Rose Quartz insists. But not like that: the moment Bismuth disagreed with Rose Quartz’s ideals, to the bubble she went. She was disappeared five thousand years ago. Time to disappear her again. (Who keeps not getting second chances? The black butch women. Sugilite is forgotten. Bismuth is forced into a coma.)
All this isn’t, really, even about the show or about screaming that it’s bad and problematic and that nobody should watch it anymore — I’m not saying any of that and I don’t think anyone is. No one is saying it’s jumped the shark and none of this will ever be resolved, obviously Bismuth will come back and something has to be done to further her character — I see her as a tragic figure, and the narrative makes room for potential that the wrongs done to her can be righted, her viewpoint negotiated. It’s just not right now, and right now what is there is sad and disappointing; right now the next two unaired episodes — which I’ve seen parts of — are not reassuring me it’ll get better soon. It’s not about calling the writers racist; again, this I am not saying, nor have I seen it said, although I’m not interested in telling anyone they don’t have the right to say all that either.
Rather it’s about how, no matter how much you love something, it’s not a part of your identity. You aren’t on its payroll. It’s not your mom. You can still like it and at the same time be critical. That is a normal, adult thing to do. It’s about sitting down and listening. I could stop squealing for a minute and listen to people who find this thing I like hurtful. So can you.
Credit to @yeloson, @dtwps, and many others for talking about the racially coded connotations in Steven Universe.
Post-‘Bismuth’, I put together more thoughts on why it’s disheartening that the show distributes agency zero-sum: as Steven gains more of it, everyone else loses theirs.