We live in an age where the concept of consent confuses adults, deeply. Frat boys are taking classes to learn lessons beyond “No means no.” A celebrated comedienne is shining a light on rape culture, while evening news makes apologies for teenage sports stars turned rapists. And Game of Thrones has us fighting on an annual basis about the definitions of rape and consent. But the next generation could well prove less perplexed by all of the above (save for why it confused us old folks so much) thanks to a cartoon show about a little boy who is learning how to be a superhero.
Steven Universe is a quirky science-fiction cartoon series that follows the adventures of the titular boy wonder and the Crystal Gems, extraterrestrial defenders of Earth, of which his late mother was once one. Steven is half-Gem, half-human, so the show follows not just his coming-of-age as a boy, but also the culture clash of his two heritages.
The show’s discussion of consent focuses on “fusion,” a major aspect of the (formerly fully female) Gem culture. But to understand fusion, you need to understand a little bit about the Gems themselves. Though their forms are humanoid, Gems don’t need to eat, sleep, or breathe. Their bodies are “like holograms with mass” that rise forth from the gem for which they are named (Pearl, Amethyst, Rose Quartz). But when Gems fuse they become something—well, someone—bigger, greater than they were alone.
Here’s a helpful and brief tutorial:
The act of fusion was shown in the season one episode “Coach Steven,” where Garnet and Amethyst form the massive and wild Sugilite by performing a dance unique to them. And as you can see below, it’s pretty sexually charged duet. (Notably, Pearl doesn’t approve of Steven seeing all that hip wiggling!)
Like sex, fusion is a physical manifestation of a relationship, of intimacy. But to assert that fusion is a direct analog of sex would be an oversimplification of fusion. Steven Universe never mentions sex directly, instead using fusion to address issues of honesty and consent through the show’s distinctive expression of love.
Still, when Steven—and by extension the audience—is introduced to fusion, it is as a tool of teamwork. Earlier, he’d urged oft-feuding Gems, Pearl and Amethyst, to overcome their differences and the distrust it inspires, and fuse in “Giant Woman” to make their mission exponentially easier.
But fusion can be more than just a means to an end, as Steven discovers in season one’s two-part finale “The Return” and “Jailbreak.” When team leader Garnet is gravely wounded in battle, she breaks down into two Gems, revealing she is a fusion of two never-before-seen Gems, Ruby and Sapphire. Once they reunite, they reface their foe as Garnet, who gives us all a lesson about fusion:
Garnet sings, “I am even more than the two of them. Everything they care about is what I am. I am their fury. I am their patience. I am their conversation.” Fusion is a relationship, its trust, compassion, love and evolution in a physical form. And how the show treats fusions, gives kids an intuitive understanding of how they should approach their own relationships.
This idea is further explored in “Alone Together,” where Steven fuses for the first time. After some failed lessons with the Crystal Gems, it’s a goofy impromptu dance with his friend/not-so-secret crush Connie that allows Steven to fuse. Their attempt is bumbling, sweet and filled with a giddy excitement and acceptance. And so they unexpectedly form a fusion of their own: Stevonnie.
Stevonnie’s adventure is an analogy of adolescence, complete with the sexual fumblings and experimenting there in. When they run to show the Gems, Garnet tells Stevonnie this fusion is an experience, and it’s up to them (Connie and Steven) to make it a good experience. “Now, go have fun!” She commands.
Together as Stevonnie, Steven and Connie get a preview of teendom, leaping from a gawky kid one moment to a full grown adult with a sexual allure. They experience highs (getting free donuts from lovestruck teens) and lows (getting aggressively hit on by a dancing douchebag) of this experience. Notably, they consult each other throughout to make sure they’re both okay with what this experience is. In this way, Steven Universe shows kids the importance of communication and respecting their partner.
But not all fusions are good experiences.
In “Keeping it Together,” it’s discovered an enemy of the Earthbound Crystal Gems has been creating forced fusions. “These were Crystal Gems, shattered into pieces, then buried together,” Garnet weeps, “They were forced together. They were forced to fuse. This is wrong.” The results are grim, a spasm of arms and legs crawling without sight or purpose. There is no trust here. No love. No consent. It is a violation so severe that it nearly rips the ever-cool and collected Garnet apart.
Garnet’s distress makes it clear that fusion should be a choice. But the show takes this lesson one step further presenting that compromising consent is not just something villains do.
Last week Cartoon Network had “Sardonyx Week,” which screened a new 11-minute episode every weekday at 6. Named for the fusion between long-time friends and sisters-at-arms Pearl and Garnet, the whole week revolved around a betrayal that took place in Monday’s ep, “A Cry For Help,” where Pearl deceived her fellow Gems to trick Garnet into fusing with her. Pearl compromised Garnet’s consent by lying to her. Honesty is meant to be part of fusion as well.
“I’m sorry, it’s just so much fun being Sardonyx with you,” Pearl confesses as Garnet turns away from her. Pearl’s offense is not worse than the force fusion, but as a betrayal between friends, it’s a damning decision. But by having one of the show’s heroes behave this way, Steven Universe shows how it’s not only bad guys that make bad decisions. Pearl’s loneliness has been a focal point of her character arc since season two. But Steven Universe doesn’t allow her loneliness to be an excuse for this betrayal, only a motivation of her grievous mistake that she’ll need to face the consequences of.
Next in “Keystone Motel,” Garnet literally breaks down into Ruby and Sapphire, torn apart by her conflicting desire to move past this betrayal, and pain at how much Pearl’s deception has wounded her.
“It’s fusion, Sapphire,” a fuming Ruby screams. “What’s more personal to us than fusion!” But this divide might be hardest on Steven, who doesn’t understand why Ruby and Sapphire can’t forgive each other, and Pearl. His pain forces the couple to stop and listen to each other, making for another tear-jerking scene that illustrates the importance of communication when “fusing.”
The third episode “Onion Friend” has Amethyst reaching out to an old pal to vent about how Pearl’s deception has poisoned the group dynamic. “Historical Friction” makes a lesson of how our mistakes help us grow as people (and Gems). “Everybody gets stuff wrong,” Steven says to a devastated Pearl. “And then you have to keep going, and it’s hard. Which is why it’s great when you never stop trying.”
Finally, in “Friend Ship,” Pearl and Garnet are thrown into a life or death situation where fusing into Sardonyx is their only chance for survival. But first, they must have the conversation they’ve avoided all week.
Through airing their own vulnerabilities (Pearl’s that she’s weak and Garnet’s that she must always seem strong), they reconnect once more. But before they fuse to save themselves, Pearl checks with her partner, “Only if you’re okay with it.” Trust, communication and consent restored, and so Sardonyx rises again, this time in a true victory.
Part of me worried about writing this piece, realizing that saying a kid’s show is giving lessons about sex might throw protective parents into a misdirected rage. But Steven Universe’s writers aren’t teaching kids how to have sex, or even encouraging them to do it. Instead, the show is using fusion as a way to educate viewers about the importance of trust, communication and consent in relationships, no matter their nature or duration.
I don’t suspect kids will watch Stevonnie frolic and connect it to eventually losing their virginity. But I do hope that kids witnessing Steven and the Gems grapple with these issues will learn not only to respect their own needs, but also be open and honest with their partner about theirs. That’s just what a Gem would do.