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Steven Universe’s “Alone Together” and Sexual Exploration

Spoilers abound everywhere, matey! Don’t read this if you’re not caught up to the most recent Steven Bomb and care about experiencing the show in the sequence the creators intended it to be watched. In addition, this article contains allusions to sexual assault and ideas of virginity.

There’s been a lot of cool conversation on the interwebs lately about how generally awesome Steven Universe is, since everybody loves it and it’s basically perfect in every way. I didn’t get into it at first, honestly, but the episode that really drew me in was episode 37, “Alone Together.” Before then, there were a lot of cool and meaningful one-off character development episodes and some great monster-of-the-week-type stuff, but I felt a drastic thematic shift in this episode – which here I will talk about as a tale of coming of age and, despite the youngish age of the characters, an allegory for losing one’s virginity and of sexual awakening.1

Okay, so let’s back up. Steven Universe is already an atypically-told-but-nevertheless-classic coming of age tale about the evolution of a young boy with regards to confidence, skills, the line between friendship and romance, and his place in the world.2 The vehicle is different, but the structure is the same. Much like many cartoons about young children, it’s a story of self-discovery. But it is, of course, about far more than that3, and Steven Universe handles much more mature themes than many other shows that air on cable have the liberty of handling, in part because most of the characters are female-appearing gemstones rather than human beings (this is the leading theory of why, for example, we can find out later that Garnet is queer ladies and we can see the affection shared between the couple – the conversation – that brings her into being, Ruby and Sapphire, which was not possible for such shows as The Legend of Korra). A great opinion piece came out a few weeks ago on Polygon about how Steven Universe deals with issues of consent, contrasted with the recent season finale of Game of Thrones, and I’d definitely recommend checking it out if you like either of these shows.

Fusion, we’ve learned, is the connection between two or more gems that leads to their becoming this giant awesome monolith of power and ability – but we’ve also learned that, more than becoming Giant Women being rad, fusion is an extremely personal thing that’s difficult to do successfully and, when done, even harder to keep stable. This is why the relationship between Ruby and Sapphire is so extraordinary: that despite being opposites, the two can stay fused for an indefinitely long period of time4 and the two circumstances under which we’ve seen them separate so far are when they are forced to in fighting Jasper and when the two have a disagreement after a particularly heartbreaking scene in which we see Pearl desperately coming up with coercive schemes to fuse with Garnet.

Ruby is enraged that Pearl would even consider doing something so invasive as lying to force a fusion, doing so possibly due to her heartbreaking and deeply-rooted self-worth issues. I won’t even touch on those here. They’re both upset at Pearl, and their disagreement over how to handle it causes their separation, but but Ruby, being the Fury of the Conversation, gets upset and tells us why she thinks it’s so messed up.

“What’s -- more -- personal -- to us -- than fusion?!”

“What’s — more — personal — to us — than fusion?!”

We’ve learned from previous episodes that forced fusion is a terrible, terrible thing. “Keeping it Together” is a perfect example – again, talked about in the Polygon article referenced above – of the horror that Garnet as an entity feels about forced fusion, and the way both of the gems that make her up, so outspoken in their own ways, uncharacteristically freeze when faced with it. This can be gleaned, too, from the great shame that Amethyst has about her history in the Kindergarten, as though she was the product of something awful and should never have come into being. Fusion should not be made to happen. It’s a violation of privacy and agency.

Now, back to my main idea.

A few episodes back, in “Alone Together,” we see Steven first experimenting with fusion. The Crystal Gems are teaching him slowly, methodically, and with care. This is much like sex ed should be — not a demonstration of exactly how it works as the gems are trying, but rather explained in positive and safe terms with a warm tone surrounding it: this is an experience, something very special, and it’s mature in theme and should not be taken lightly when it comes to the other person’s feelings and desires, but should be experienced with consent and respect in whatever way you and your partner(s) see fit. Steven seems to understand and has a sort of insecurity about ever being able to do it, and while Pearl says she, too, has her doubts, Garnet reassures him with her belief that he can do it, it might just take time and that’s okay. This is, as we’ve all probably felt, a classic insecurity. Sex, and fusion, can be scary. Garnet, who is the embodiment of love, is encouraging him, which is deeply symbolic; we can make the argument that Garnet loves this planet so much because nobody questions who she is, the love between the two female gems5 that bring her into being, in the way that gems like Jasper do. And when they come to her having accidentally fused, well…

Pearl -- look at Garnet!

Connie and Steven experiment with fusion unintentionally. They move and laugh and blush with respect for each other and suddenly they’ve become literally one being. They dance delicately and slowly and stumble into it, rather than being forced to. Sorry to flood this with screencaps, but their positive, lighthearted but strong feelings for each other really come out when they fuse without even being aware of what is going to happen:

Sorry about the timestamp.

Contrast this, too, with the look on Ruby and Sapphire’s faces when they are about to fuse again:

Risque.

It goes without saying that there’s similar elation and love there.

When Steven and Connie – when fused, Amethyst calls them “Stevonnie” in true shipper form – are together in their safe space, their one body, their bubble of mutual respect and understanding, they’re constantly checking back in with one another about what they want.

“Are you sure this is okay? We can stop at any time.” - Positive consent.

“Are you sure this is okay? We can stop at any time.” – Positive consent.

They radiate confidence together, wooing (for example) both Lars and Sadie without trying and saying that free donuts is a bad business model upon leaving, rather than dwelling in a feeling of self-consciousness when it comes to that attraction. While self-confidence is a typical trait of Steven’s, who knows little to no shame about his body or his interests, Connie is shy about even dancing in front of people – and yet the words about bad business practice seem to be in more of a Connie type of tone than Steven’s. They’re learning and growing together, taking on each other’s characteristics in a way that echoes Garnet’s encouragement when they approached her: you are not two people, nor are you one. You are an experience. And they blend together into that experience spectacularly.

In fact, it isn’t until their safe space is violated by someone pressuring them into something they don’t feel comfortable doing – and they lash out from that feeling of unsafety, recognizing for perhaps the first time that the world isn’t always a kind, delicate, or respectful place, and that sometimes one must fight unpleasant battles – that they split, much like Garnet after the issue with Pearl. Stevonnie dances to let out a rage and frustration against the system that has made them feel this way, and their scene ends. No longer alone together, but instead just regular together, they dance and laugh without regard for how weird everyone else feels about having seen one giant androgynous lady-type-being explode into two kids like dogs in a trench coat. It would seem that the confidence and the blend of their beings had some effect in the long term.

This episode is an elegant way to discuss the sexual explorations of youth in a way that addresses positive consent and care. The elders accept – to varying degrees, admittedly – and encourage them to be safe and have fun, and allow them to go out and do the thing on their own. It addresses, honestly and accurately, what it feels like to be pressured by someone who wants something from you that you don’t want to give. And it addresses, no less importantly, that feeling of shared vulnerability.

There’s a lot more that can be said here, but I end on some words from Greg:

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 15.14.45

“Son, there comes a time in your life when you come to accept all pizza.”

It’s a total stretch to apply this statement to people, I admit, and it runs the risk of cheapening everything I just spent way too much time trying to put together and say, but it’s a good line to end on. Pizza or people or giant women. There’s a lot yet to be seen about fusion – though we know some gems think it’s a “cheap tactic to make weak gems stronger” – but, you know. Greg was in love with an alien rock lady. Why discriminate against what makes people happy? Be that a continual state of fusion as with Garnet, being a carefree whimsical giant gem-human-hybrid who just wants to dance on their own like Stevonnie, or a person who likes to eat square pizzas, whoever you are out there.

 

1. This being said, I should specify that it is an allegory for people who have been lucky enough to do this with their consent with the person/people that they chose to. This is not to belittle the experience of folks who did not have this experience; the point is to illustrate that this is a very respectful and elegant way of talking about the beginnings of sexual exploration. Virginity is itself an idyllic and, in my opinion, outdated western conception, one that I had originally started talking about before recognizing that perhaps the better way to talk about it would be of consensual sexual awakening.
2. And, uh, fusion.
3. Seriously, there’s so much to unpack in just about any given scene.
4. Go ahead, try and hit me if you’re able / Can’t you see that my relationship is stable
5. It should be noted that Steven is the only male-appearing gem that we’ve met, and so we cannot say with any certainty whether relationships between gems are normal or, if they are practiced, whether it is strange to be done in the way Garnet has. There is sexual tension between basically all of the crystal gems minus Steven but plus Rose, and it’s hard to claim for sure, as we have a lot left to learn. I am positing based on the information we presently have.

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