“Steven Universe” Saves the World by Facing Trauma, Abuse and Mental Illness With Hope and Heart

Steven Universe‘s season five finale, “Change Your Mind,” saw Rebecca Sugar stick a nearly impossible landing, and, in doing so, prove not only her skill as a showrunner and storyteller, but her commitment to allowing children and adults to see their trauma, abuse, and mental illnesses reflected back at them with compassion and hope for healing. Steven Universe has never shied away from showing the myriad facets of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and grief — but in “Change Your Mind,” the show went even deeper, depicting Steven’s final battle with the Gem Empire as a boy facing off against a toxic family, held together by an abusive narcissist, and walking away triumphant.

The hour-long episode opens with Steven and Connie imprisoned on the Gem Homeworld. They’re basically alone, and determined to get the heck out of there with the dormant forms of Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. Blue Diamond and Yellow Diamond both try to stop them, but Steven finally gets through to them by pulling back the curtain on their dysfunctional family dynamic with White Diamond. She’s a controlling, manipulative, unbending tyrant whose demand for perfection — and inability to see other Gems and even whole civilizations as anything other than beings who exist to satisfy her whims — drove Pink Diamond away. Blue and Yellow agree with him, and when they try to explain their feelings to White, she proves Steven right by turning them colorless and forcing them to act as literal extensions of herself.

That’s her power. The power of narcissism. She even uses it on Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl after Steven (awesomely!) fuses with all of them in turn, and then collectively, to reactivate them. But the textbook emotional abuse doesn’t stop there: White senses Steven’s identity crisis and decides to convince him, once and for all, that he isn’t who he thinks he is, that he’s someone else, and that someone else exists for the purpose of making White happy. In a stunning, stark, horrifying series of animation, White completes her gaslighting by plucking Steven’s gem from his body. It seems, for a second, like she’s destroyed him. But then: The gem becomes Pink Diamond, it becomes Rose, it becomes Steven. Connie carries broken human Steven to Gem Steven. They reach for each other with tears in their eyes. They hug. Steven fuses… with Steven. When he finally sees himself for who he really is, he laughs and stands up, whole and strong, in that truth.

His giggling sends White Diamond to the edge of herself. She coldly, furiously scolds him for acting like a child. “I am a child,” he says. “What’s your excuse?”

White flushes (pink) and Steven wins.

Is it on the nose? Yes, it’s on the nose — and it’s magnificent. As is every other way this show has illustrated the pain and struggles of our minds and the minds of the people we love.

There’s “Room for Ruby,” in which Lapis’ battles with PTSD and depression are fully revealed. She was imprisoned for millenia, and, after being released, she didn’t just bounce back. Even time and empathy and companionship couldn’t fully “heal” her. She uses apathy as a defense mechanism, she hides away to keep herself from being afflicted with more emotional pain. When Lapis meets a Gem who’s been through the same things as her, but somehow came out unscathed, her despair and rage collide and she flees the love of even her closest friends to hide in her brokenness. She blames herself for everything that’s happened to her, every terrible thing she feels, every way she can’t connect.

But Steven Universe doesn’t abandon her in that pain. There’s respite in “Room for Ruby,” when the seemingly happy Navy absconds as a villain, and Lapis’ pessimism is proven correct. She and Steven even laugh about it. But that’s nothing compared to “Reunited,” when her depression becomes her superpower — as Blue Diamond’s ability to infect everyone with deep sadness incapacitates the other Gems, even Garnet on her wedding day, only Lapis is able to fight back. “I’ve felt worse,” she proclaims, while disrupting Blue’s aura enough to let everyone else regroup and find the strength to join the battle.

And there’s Pearl in “Steven the Sword Fighter.” Impaled by her own hologram, she’s forced to retreat into her gem to heal. For weeks, Steven is only able to interact with Holo-Pearl, an echo of Pearl’s real self who will only respond to Steven by trying to provoke him to sword fight. We already know, at that point, that Pearl was in a codependent relationship with Rose and grieves for her loss more than all the other Gems. She tells Steven she was Rose’s greatest confidant. Connie wonders, in “Sworn to the Sword,” if Rose made Pearl feel  likeshe wasn’t good enough. “Rose made me feel like I was everything,” Pearl confesses. Her grief doesn’t heal, and Holo-Pearl becomes the allegory for the depression her pain creates. Steven knows Pearl as his fierce and brilliant protector, not as the shell of a person who only wants to fight him. “Steven the Sword Fighter” empathizes with depression, and those in relationships stymied by it.

Pearl eventually does regenerate, though her pain is never fully gone. She fights her grief to be able to fight for Steven.

“Change Your Mind,” the culmination of 156 episodes and the end-point of the original five-season series Rebecca Sugar pitched to Cartoon Network, ends with Steven on the beach with his ukulele. He sings a song he wrote, an idea he had, the most important lesson he’s learned: “I don’t need you to respect me, I respect me. I don’t need you to love me, I love me. But I want you to know you could know me, if you change your mind.”

As he sings, he’s surrounded by those queer, nonbinary Gems who adore and protect him. His found family. He’s not his mother; not even his mother’s son; he’s him, Steven Universe. A child who was ripped apart, and healed.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle managing editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 787 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. Watching this episode was so powerful and that song at the end, while so short and simple, made me cry with how related the lyrics were. I will be talking about this episode and this show for years to come and I have so much respect for Rebecca Sugar and her team for all the work they’ve done on this.

  2. I played that tiny song like forty times and then cried myself to sleep, ngl. Children are gonna hear that simple, beautiful idea even before some of them need them!! SO ARE THEIR BEST FRIENDS, THEY’RE ALREADY GONNA KNOW EXTERNAL VALIDATION IS OPTIONAL

  3. I’ve really struggled with this season’s conclusion. There are many aspects where I agree with you. It’s a spectacular ending, but it’s left me feeling cold.

    CW: abuse, imperialism, genocide (also please excuse the ramble)
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    You’re right, the series spent many episodes dealing with the repercussions of Lapis’ abuse.She’s disappeared from the narrative on a few occasions to then return a slightly changed, yet still very much the same. Her time with Jasper hurt her more, but she was trapped in a cycle. It takes her months to reintegrate with the Crystal Gems after leaving the planet. She runs away several more times. She is also a being who is at least 6,000 years old, most of which were spent imprisoned and enslaved.

    White Diamond on the other hand is an ancient being (nearly as old as Homeworld itself I imagine). In the most recent episodes leading to the finale we learn that every pillar, decoration, hieroglyph in the Diamonds’ rooms were actual gems trapped in the walls the same way Lapis was trapped in the mirror. A literal hall of horrors. Steven sees them, but all of the other gems ignore them. In the episodes leading to Lars the Space Pirate we meet the Off Colors, who are stateless refugees condemned to death if they are caught by the Diamond Authority. Throughout her existence, White Diamond, a colonizer, commits genocide without hesitation. She also harms those closest to her: Yellow, Blue and Pink (when she lived). We waited several hundred episodes to confront her and in just one episode she is undone because she was embarrassed by Steven? She doesn’t even have the concept of childhood since gems are born fully formed!

    It’s a lot for me to swallow. Will the next season be White Diamond’s recovery? Do I even want to see that particular redemption arc? Will the colonies be freed? Will Homeworld change their entire culture as a result of Steven’s intervention? Will the gems trapped in the walls be able to adapt to life outside of those halls? What about hierarchies on Homeworld? Won’t the upper-caste (The upper crust! for a quick Geology joke) Gems resent the sudden loss of power/privilege? Why is this only one episode?

    The confrontation with White and the fallout shouldn’t have been an hour long episode with a montage on Earth (though it really was a beautiful montage and I love, LOVE the song Steven sings), it should be it’s own season because it needs room to breath.

    Had White Diamond been allotted the same space to grow and struggle that was given to Lapis, Peridot, Pearl, the Cluster in the Earth’s core and even Bismuth (though I also wish we explored her growth more, too) I’d be able to understand her drastic change in perspective. This could have been done by allowing us to meet White Diamond multiple times throughout the season. We would have witnessed the subtle changes as she was starting to see the error in her ways thanks to small, but impactful interactions with Steven. We could also still have had the big confrontation we had in this finale, because the most dangerous time around an abuser is when you are attempting to leave or change them.

    That’s the part that makes it the most difficult to me. I’ve reasoned with my abusers when I was a child. It didn’t work. It couldn’t work. They would have had to understand and/or care that they were harming me. They certainly were not embarrassed or ashamed. So whether I look at it from a macro-level or from a deeply personal level, I was shocked that this was the end result of so many years of build up. It’s also suspect, because abusers frequently go through cycles of harm and then caring to keep their victims trapped in the relationship. It feels like everything is resolved, but it’s only the calm before the next downturn. The abusive family was a dangerous analogy to make on their part. For me, that conclusion was only White Diamond appeasing Steven to then later return to old habits formed over millennia.

    I do believe in Steven. I believe he does have a supernatural Hufflepuff ability to LISTEN to folks about their problems and to unite people even when it seems impossible. Where White Diamond, as you so perfectly described, is embodied narcissism, Steven is empathy and unconditional love. I wish I believed that love and empathy was enough to stop abuse (and imperialism).

    • I agree with this assessment, and share similar feelings. Anls someone from a country only 52 years independent, I suppose I have a vested interest in seeing more work done here. Colonisation, and imperialism don’t simply end because the coloniser has a change of heart. I’m also very concerned by the way in which Jasper’s actions were resolved, and want more accountability for pre-space-pirate!Lars.

      I hope that whatever remaining content we get from them, delves deeper into the macro+micro healing, decolonising, restructuring, abuse decompression, and reparations work still needed.

    • I was very uncomfortable with the way White was suddenly a safe person and how quick they were to reintegrate their diamond family with her. It made no sense because people don’t do that. Forcing her to fix the broken gems and then containing her while trying to help her develop as a person and understand the ways she mistreated an entire civilisation for centuries would have made sense but this was too easy and felt all wrong.

  4. My wife is still in the “Rose” phase of dealing with her family trauma – learning to see it, saying no, and figuring out who she is independent of them.

    She disassociated really hard throughout this episode because she isn’t where Steven is yet.

    I feel like Steven Universe needs to be at the center of a 300 level college psych course.

  5. ive got to come back and read comments but i love this / along w adventure time (and she-ra now that i think about it) i was really unprepared for these shows to go w these themes and just really help me im really glad we have shows like this now esp for kids coming up behind us

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