So About that Steven Universe “Special”

*SPOILERS*

After a lot of hype, a special 22 minute Steven Universe episode “Bismuth” aired, introducing a new crystal gem.

I suggest the first thing you do is go and watch the episode to get a good idea of what we are getting into it, but I’ll summarize it as best as I can.

In the episode, Bismuth, who had been kept bubbled in Lion’s mane, is now freed, and reintroduced to the Crystal Gems. We spend the first half or so of the episode establishing Bismuth as a strong character who is a great warrior and an even greater blacksmith who dearly loves her friends but absolutely hates Homeworld. And to be honest, she does have a good reason, considering how Homeworld was responsible for the death of almost all her friends.

At first, she and Steven get along well, with Bismuth reminiscing how Rose, just another Quartz soldier, said “hey, why are we defined by our purposes?” and started the rebellion, helping Bismuth realize she can be more than her predestined purpose.

But then the episode takes a very dark turn when Bismuth introduces Steven to a special weapon, called The Breaking Point, which can shatter and completely destroy Gems in the blink of an eye. Bismuth states that she would’ve used this weapon to win the war and destroy the Diamonds (the main oppressors/antagonists of the show) but Steven is horrified. They have a fight, and it ends with the weapon being destroyed and Bismuth being bubbled again.

After I watched the episode, I immediately felt uncomfortable. Other than Jasper (who is currently depicted as a monstrous villain), Bismuth is the only big, muscular, masculine, almost butch character in the show, in addition to being heavily black coded (dark skin, dreadlocks, a deep voice provided by a black actress). While she is a fairly complex character and far from evil, she is still depicted as aggressive (a very damaging stereotype to both black women AND non-feminine women) and in the wrong. I understand that the show, being for children, can’t exactly outright condone extreme acts of violence, but I feel like there could’ve been a better resolution than simply bubbling Bismuth and dismissing her as ‘extreme’ and ‘too far gone’. I understand Uzo Aduba is a big name actress and they can’t have her on all the time, but it still rubbed me the wrong way that they felt the best way to leave the character off was back in a bubble (and not, say, dropping her off somewhere peaceful for her to chill out).

But what makes this especially discomforting is how Bismuth’s narrative is compared to the narrative of the skinnier, smaller (and more conventionally attractive) characters.

Pearl manipulated Garnet into fusing with her and put two children in danger more than once. She is forgiven, depicted sympathetically, and continues to be a main character.

Lapis Lazuli stole the world’s oceans and put multiple people in harm’s way,  and has been shown to not particularly care about Earth. She is forgiven, depicted sympathetically, and continues to be a main character.

Peridot has tried to kill the Crystal Gems multiple times, has had a hand in the ethically horrendous cluster experiments, is shown to not have any respect for certain gems (and fusions entirely), and only became loyal to Earth when she became disappointed with her superior. She is forgiven, depicted sympathetically, and continues to be a main character.

Bismuth tried to make a weapon of dubious ethics in order to win the war, liberate her people, and is clearly traumatized by what happened. She is depicted as aggressive, wrong, and put in a bubble, not to be seen until further noticed.

Funny how only the big, black-coded, heavier-set character gets this treatment. Funny how the only OTHER big, black-coded, heavier-set character, Sugilite, is also demonized. And funny how the only other big, heavier character is a villain.

A lot of people, mainly black people, are upset over this episode. This season has been seriously hit and miss, and after this, my faith in the show has dropped significantly.

The reason why this show’s problems stick out so much is because the show is also astoundingly progressive. It’s one of the few shows with prominent LGBT representation (where no one dies or is a villain) and tends to have other good messages as well. So when I watch a show expending something good and important and then come across an episode that is deeply problematic, it’s beyond jarring.

I guess at this point, I can only hope that Bismuth will come back sooner than later (and be shown in a much better light). It’s the least the show can do.

UPDATE/EDIT

The next episode revealed that Rose Quartz shattered Pink Diamond and that the Crystal Gems knew about it. This not only has massive unfortunate implications (if you’re white and feminine, killing is justifiable, but if you’re black and butch, you’re just a murderer), but it made the characters look like absolute hypocrites. As the show went on Steven realizes that Bismuth wasn’t entirely in the wrong, but still kept her bubbled. As of 2017/05/30, it looks like maybe Rose didn’t shatter PD after all. So this is all really frustrating. She needs to come back and have a better resolution. She needs to be portrayed in a better light. I’m just tired of a show that gets applauded for being oh so diverse treat their minority-coded characters like garbage while giving their whiter and skinnier characters more attention and humanity.

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Author: Laura Alexander

My name is Laura, I use they/them pronouns, and I'm an autistic college student currently enrolled at the Social Service Worker Program at Sheridan College. I have a passion for film and animation, social issues, and helping others, all of which will be featured on my blog. "Big Hero 6" is my favourite movie.

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