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Thousand Year Old Wars: Steven Universe and Intergenerational Trauma

SPOILER ALERT: This article includes spoilers for season five of Steven Universe.

Steven Universe is a Cartoon Network show that revolves around Steven, his family of Crystal Gems, and their adventures protecting the Earth from extraterrestrial threat. Thousands of years ago, Steven’s mother Rose Quartz led a rebellion against the tyrannical Homeworld that was trying to destroy the Earth by exhausting its resources. Unfortunately, the leaders of Homeworld carried out a mass attack on the rebellion, killing the majority of the resistance. While a few of the Crystal Gems survived — like Rose, Pearl, and Garnet — the trauma they experienced developed into PTSD they still carry with them. What’s more, while Steven and Amethyst weren’t around for the war, both characters also exhibit symptoms of PTSD and intergenerational trauma (AKA transgenerational trauma).

A GIF of Rose Quartz standing above the gem war battlefield.

Intergenerational trauma happens when an individual whose immediate family or culture has experienced trauma — whether through genocide, war, or natural disaster — experiences similar distress. While the individual may not have experienced the trauma directly, they can still be affected by the results of said event. A study on Holocaust survivors and their children from Biological Psychiatry suggests that traumatic events change our DNA, specifically the FKBP5 gene which “contributes to risk for depression and anxiety,” study leader Dr. Rachel Yehuda told PBS. While Steven wasn’t present for the war, he still experiences trauma from it. Steven physically feels Blue Diamond’s grief over the loss of her sister and even dreams about events from the war throughout the show. The anxiety Steven feels about the war, and his mother’s role in it, has little to do with his personal experiences. Rather, it stems from the experiences of his family. However, with Rose being literally part of him, her gem residing right under his shirt, the trauma is impossible to ignore. This is a powerful metaphor for how trauma can be passed down genetically.

A photo of Steven eating a cookie cat while his magical gem glows.

Not only can trauma physically affect the DNA of survivors’ offspring, it can also play a psychosocial affect in their upbringing. Siberian Yupik Rene Schimmel told NPR’s Codeswitch about her and her son’s experience with intergenerational trauma passed down from Rene’s mother; she was one of thousands of Alaskan Native children taken by the US government and put into Christian boarding schools. “They told her how to dress, how to speak, how to hold herself. So there was a lot of sexual abuse, a lot of physical abuse… She would cry to be home. But then when she was home, she was miserable…” she says. Later, when Rene was born, her mother’s ability to show love and affection was deeply affected. Rene didn’t grow up with the support and reassurance she needed and when she had her own son, she feared he’d suffer similar intergenerational trauma. More on that later.

Amethyst also shows signs of intergenerational trauma. In “What’s Your Problem?” (S5: E20), Amethyst spends most of the episode trying to cheer Steven up in order to distract herself from her own feelings around Rose’s betrayal. “I’m not going to dump another thousand year war on you!” she tells Steven. Amethyst sees it as her responsibility to protect Steven from the effects of a war neither of them were actually involved in. Amethyst’s intergenerational trauma has less to do with her DNA than with the psychosocial stress she grew up with around Rose, Pearl, and Garnet, as well as the culture loss she experienced having never been to Homeworld.

A photo of Amethyst trying to cheer Steven up with an enormous pizza.

Insecurity in cultural identity can also contribute to intergenerational trauma. For individuals who have experienced culture loss, this gap in identity can cause a lot of serious problems, such as anxiety, depression, and intimacy issues. Rene’s grandmother, from the Codeswitch episode on intergenerational trauma, lost her cultural identity when she was taken to boarding school. “…nothing was put in the place of where culture was. So they had this huge gaping hole in their identity,” Rene’s son Sam says. That insecurity made things difficult for Sam growing up. While he was eventually able to fall back on his culture during difficult times, his mother wasn’t. He says, “I think some of that trauma was then passed on to my mother. I’m not as deeply affected as she was, of course. But I am affected by it because she wasn’t able to be a mother for a portion of my childhood because she had to take care of herself.” Both Rene and Sam eventually found ways of coping with their trauma.

A photo of Sam Schimmel and his grandmother Estelle Oozevaseuk. Photo copyright of NPR and Rene Schimmel.

One way of coping with intergenerational trauma is to reconnect with your roots, especially if part of the trauma is culture loss or identity insecurity. “…culture is like a scaffold and like a safety net,” says Codeswitch. “So it’s a scaffolding that you can attach your dreams, your desires, your vision for the future to it. But then it’s also there to fall back on when things get hard. And so that doesn’t mean that you have to do things exactly the way your ancestors did it, it just means that you have to have something there. And if culture was destroyed, it needs to be built back up.” This is something a lot of survivors of intergenerational trauma experience.

Much of Steven Universe revolves around Steven reconnecting with his gem culture. At the beginning of the series he is living with the Crystal Gems who teach him about his mother, the war, and the culture they come from. He still has a strong relationship with his father Greg, but both Greg and Steven understand how important it is for Steven to understand his whole culture. Steven is able to connect the dots of his own identity by living, training, and learning about the history of Homeworld with the Crystal Gems. Amethyst also tries to connect to her roots by visiting the kindergarten where she was born in order to get some closure (S1:E40). She also connects with some of the other Quartz in the zoo when the Crystal Gems venture into space to rescue Greg (S4:E14). In both of these episodes, Amethyst is able to understand who she is and where she comes from and to plan where she wants to go. In these ways, Amethyst reconnects with her culture and copes with the intergenerational trauma she experiences.

A GIF of Steven and the Crystal Gems hugging.

Author’s Note

Intergenerational trauma is something I deal with personally. My father’s side of my family is Cherokee. When my grandmother was a child, she and her siblings were put up for adoption (allegedly. My family and I still don’t know if this was an ethical adoption or if my grandmother and her siblings were separated from their family, something that was legal up until the The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978). They were taken from New York to Nebraska in one of the country’s last orphan trains. Several of her siblings died along the way. Between the loss of cultural identity and the sexual and emotional abuse they suffered along the way, that trauma was passed down to my father who ended up dropping out of high school and eventually died of an opiod addiction. I myself suffer from depression, anxiety and PTSD.

I should make it clear that most of my family is white, I didn’t grow up on a reservation, and I don’t experience the same kind of trauma and difficulties a lot of Native children do. It’s important to me that I acknowledge the privilege I have as someone who isn’t typically read as Native. However, the trauma my grandmother went through still affects me. It’s something I have to work through and understanding my family history is one way that helps. Before he passed, my father did his best to reconnect me with our culture. We read books on the history of our tribe and frequently attended cultural events to fill in the identity insecurity we both struggled from. It made an enormous difference in how I grew up and the ways I found to cope with intergenerational trauma. I relate to Steven Universe because I’ve been in Steven’s shoes as a young person of Native American descent trying to understand where I come from and how that affects who I am today.

Talk it Out

  1. Do you or someone you know experience intergenerational trauma? How does it affect you/your loved ones?
  2. What are some ways to reconnect with your culture? Is there a place you can go, a practice you can participate in, or a person from your culture you can talk to?
  3. Do you connect with Steven and Amethyst’s identity journey? Why or why not? How is your journey similar? How is it different?

Take Action

  1. Our Steven Universe Fandom Forward Toolkit has some great resources for understanding cultural identity. Take a moment to fill out the identity gem diagram on page 11.
  2. Interview a family member about their childhood and culture. How did the way they grew up affect who they are now?
  3. Attend a local cultural event or group meeting. Connecting with others who share your cultural background is a great way of getting in touch with your roots!

Resources

“What We Inherit”

“Holocaust Exposure Induced Intergenerational Effects on FKBP5 Methylation”

PBS on Intergenerational Trauma

Coping with trans-generational trauma: a key feature of peacebuilding work in Rwanda

Steven Universe Fandom Forward Toolkit

Reclaiming Native Truth

Fandom Forward is a program of the Harry Potter Alliance. We help you bring fan activism to your favorite fandoms with free toolkits and activities to use in your chapters, with your friends, in your classrooms, at your libraries, on your own. Find full toolkits at thehpalliance.org/fandomforward.

For more info, email us at fandomforward@thehpalliance.org

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Fandom Forward helps you bring fan activism to your favorite fandoms with free toolkits and activities to use in your chapters, with your friends, in your classrooms, at your libraries, on your own. For more info, email us at fandomforward@thehpalliance.org

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Charli Renken

Charli Renken

43 Followers

Writer, activist, nerd. Resource Coordinator for the Harry Potter Alliance. Former Secret Chicago editor. They/them pronouns, please!