Ingrid and I are re-watching the entire Steven Universe series — yet again — and since we’ve been spending so much talking about it with each other, I thought I’d blog some of my observations.. Please note: I’m not writing these Steven Universe posts as a series summary or recap. I’m just writing down some of my observations and reactions (not necessarily coherently), both to the show as a whole and to the individual episodes. These posts will probably make more sense to people who are already watching/ have already watched the show, but I hope they inspire the rest of you to check out the show, as it really is one of the richest and most emotionally intense things I’ve seen on TV. Note: This post may contain spoilers about Steven Universe: the show as a whole, and/or about Episode 6: Cat Fingers.
“It kind of does what it wants.”
Some episodes of Steven Universe are complex and nuanced, with subtle meanings on many levels. This one, I think, is not. This one, I think, is very straightforward: it’s about teenage and pre-teen anxiety about changing bodies.
Teenagehood can seem really exciting to kids. It did to me: when I was growing up. teenagers seemed like the most glamorous people on the planet. But when you’re in the middle of it, it can be difficult and scary. Of course there’s the emotional and psychological transition, the place of not yet being an adult but not being a kid any more, being seen by others as neither or both, not being seen by others the way you’re ready to be seen. But in addition to that, there’s the anxiety of the purely physical changes. Being a pre-teen and teenager can feel like you’re turning into something completely different and alien, and you have no control over it.
I think that’s what this episode is about. Steven sees Amethyst shapeshfting, wants to learn how to do it himself, and starts to be able to make cats pop out of his body. At first it’s exciting and fun. Cats on your fingers! What’s not to like? But he quickly starts to lose control of it. Cats start popping out everywhere and taking over. They even lash out against his will, biting Lars. And he can’t make them go away. Cats start appearing on their own, popping out of his face like zits, and they quickly take over his body and turn him into a monster, unrecognizable even by his own father. (Visually, this is one of the most unsettling episodes of Steven Universe: Ingrid can barely stand to watch it, and I find it pretty disturbing as well.)
It’s telling that Amethyst is who Steven is imitating here. He models himself after all the gems at some point or another, but in this episode it’s Amethyst, the one who’s most like a teenager, whose shapeshifting abilities he admires and wants to imitate. It’s interesting that Steven doesn’t grasp how disturbing this is to others: he runs around town showing off his cat fingers, not picking up on how freaky people find it. And I think it’s telling that in this episode, it isn’t the Gems who help him. It’s his dad. In one sense this is magic gem business — he’s made his body turn into cats — but sentient rocks can’t teach him how to deal with his changing body. This episode starts and ends with Steven and Greg: ultimately, this is intensely human, parent-child business.
(Side note: When people teaching a skill say, “Relax and don’t try so hard,” they don’t always acknowledge that this can be a really hard thing to do. I find it interesting that Steven is actually very good at it, and picks it up quickly. He obviously doesn’t control it very well — but the basic idea of “trying not to try,” he’s very good at.)