Strong in the Real Way…

I spent much of the past week revisiting my alma mater, Spalding University’s Brief-Residency MFA in Writing, for homecoming. There were workshops, panels, and lectures, and I started some new essays. It was a fruitful time for me as a writer, but even more important for me as a person.

My favorite part of homecoming had nothing to do with anything scheduled. It was a conversation held in the lobby of the historic Brown Hotel (which the MFA program uses as a “dorm” for residencies) with some dear friends discussing Steven Universe. We debated theories about Steven, Lars, and the gems for a solid hour (which I’m not sharing here to avoid spoilers), and could have gone a lot longer had other responsibilities gotten in the way.

Long after the conversation ended, I found myself still thinking of it. I still am, two days later. What is it about a cartoon with a seemingly silly premise–alien gems and a half human, half gem boy defending Earth from other gems–that has sucked so many of us in? I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but I can speak for me, and for my two favorite characters, Rose and Pearl.

  • ROSE AND SEXUALITY: While Rose Quartz, Steven’s mother, is long dead by the time the show premiers, her flashback scenes are everything. I remember being younger, not sure what to do with complex feelings of attraction and sexuality, and even less sure where to find answers. All the models for relationships I saw, whether in real life or on television, were either heterosexual or, rarely, stereotypically (male) homosexual. I had no clue what it meant to be attracted to men and women, and it made me feel like an outcast, a freak. I was almost out of high school before I heard the word “bisexual” and it was the most beautiful and scary word. When I was introduced to Steven Universe, it was the “Mr. Greg” episode where Pearl and Greg finally work out their issues over their shared love of Rose. I wept. I can count on one hand how many bisexual characters I’ve seen on television, and can’t name another cartoon character. I wept for me, for the affirmation of seeing a woman attracted to men and women on screen. And I wept for the kids growing up in a world where they can see themselves on television. I wish them much less sorrow and self-hatred than I had


  • PEARL AND GROWTH: I love me some Pearl. Hands down, she is my favorite character. She is the perfect representation of how it feels to be different, someone struggling to find love and acceptance and home after what she thought of as home (at Rose’s side) proves to be temporary. Her need to make things appear perfect, to never be satisfied with how anything is going, to beat herself up when things don’t go according to plan, her difficulty in letting go and having fun, her almost pathological need to care for Steven and keep him safe and to be loved by him in return, and her loneliness and grief for Rose–it’s all so perfectly done. Even her appearance, sharp edges where the other gems are more rounded and soft, shows how tense she is. Pearl makes me cry more than any other gem. Her maternal love for Steven is so pure and so good, and her grief, which she tries to hide, is so obvious. There are two episodes where Pearl especially shines for me. The first is “Coach Steven” where she battles jealousy over Steven idolizing Sugilite (the fusion of Amethyst and Garnet) and sings “Strong in the Real Way.”  “And can’t you see that she’s out of control/ And overzealous?/ I’m telling you for your own good,/ And not because I’m-/ I can show you how to be strong…/ In the real way…./And I want to inspire you/ I want to be your rock/ And when I talk/ It lights a fire in you.” It’s the first time Pearl admits to herself feelings of jealousy–even though she doesn’t say the word jealous–and a chink in the armor of her perfection appears. I have a hard time making friends a lot of the time, and I struggle with feelings of inadequacy and awkwardness. I want so badly to be accepted, but I have no idea how to be most of the time. A lifetime of hiding ones true self will do that. In “Coach Steven,” Pearl is me. Or I am Pearl. The second episode, “Last Stop Out of Beach City,” shows Pearl finally letting down her guard, speeding without a license to go to a rock concert with Steven, and daring to talk to a human woman who looks something like Rose. In letting go of her need for perfection, in daring to have fun and relax, she stumbles across the realization that she can perhaps find love again. (And can we talk about how amazing it is to see a blatant same-sex pickup attempt on a cartoon? I had chills!) And she has fun. It took me a long time to be okay with myself. I still struggle with it a lot. But there are times, like long conversations with my husband, or in conversations with friends about Steven Universe, where my guard slips, and I can laugh and forget about feeling inadequate.

I am obviously not alone in my Steven Universe obsession, and there are so many other things I could write about why I love it. And I may write about more soon. But the companionship I felt at Spalding, at a place where I nearly always feel safe to be myself, and the excitement at sharing my S.U. enthusiasm with fellow MFAers, was beautiful. Steven Universe, and my Spalding family–they help me to accept myself. They help me to speak my truth. And, most importantly, they help me to be strong–in the real way.