It is not possible to run out of reasons to love Steven Universe. This show’s explicitly queer representation is staggeringly high for a show as mainstream as it is; its psychological depth is impressive; it tells us forthrightly and aggressively that our genders should not constrain our possibilities; most of the characters are women or people of color (and largely voiced by people of color); there is a plot arc that is unambiguously about consent and another about being willing to seek comfort from one’s friends in crisis; onward and onward.
It’s also an impressively diverse treatment of immigrants’ and refugees’ feelings about the place they used to call home.
Spoilers out to episode 83 follow.
Of the nine single-gem characters (as opposed to fusions) that have made long-term homes on Earth so far, only Steven and Amethyst were born on Earth. These two were born under very different circumstances, but share in the unique sense of deprivation and distance that often plagues first-generation populations. Both of them know no home but Earth, yet they cannot simply exist among humans. Gem culture, and the gems’ quasi-magical abilities, are part of their experience and part of what makes them who they are, and their difference is obvious from the start. Yet their earthly upbringing (and Steven’s mixed heritage) prevents either from integrating seamlessly into gem society. Both characters are trapped between two worlds, too earthly for gem society, too gem for Earth, pulled toward and away from both all at once. Both seem most at ease in human rather than gem company, to the ongoing consternation of their immigrant elders. Neither can fully empathize with the crushing homesickness that so many of the other characters face.
The other seven gems on Earth were made on Gem Homeworld. (Edit from a season later: it has since been revealed that both Rose Quartz and Jasper were made on Earth, which may render some of this commentary out of date.) Pearl and Rose Quartz founded the revolt that led to the Gem War and, ultimately, their own and the other five’s exile on Earth. Rose’s feelings are perpetually mysterious, as she exists only in flashbacks and recordings. What little we see of her suggests that she delights in her new home. Behaving as someone accustomed to social privilege, she approaches her new home planet with hedonic delight. As the impetus for the events that followed, she made the most deliberate and considered break from her past of any of the exiled gems, and that fact keeps her from missing it as strongly as the others do. If she wept for the home she never saw again, she kept it off-screen, and left little information about it for her son to learn. Rose, in this view, wanted to forget, and to pass into the future as if she had always been an Earthling.
Pearl made the decision that led to her spending thousands of years away from Homeworld at Rose’s behest. The intensity of the relationship between the two and Pearl’s own feelings of inadequacy and isolation with Rose’s absence make it difficult to know how much of that decision was Pearl’s, and how much she felt she had no choice in or would have never done without Rose’s encouragement. Pearl’s status as a trained and competent warrior and technologist, where most members of her caste are servants and secretaries, puts her in stark violation of Homeworld norms and leaves her doomed to exile even without her revolutionary activities. The weight of this severance falls heavily on her. Unique among the Crystal Gems, she cultivates an obsession with ancient gem technology, the remnants of a world she left behind thousands of years ago and which is still, permanently, lost to her. Briefly, that weight makes her take on an ill-conceived quest to travel the stars once more, until common sense reasserts itself.
Garnet (at the time consisting separately of Ruby and Sapphire), Peridot, and Jasper were all deep within the Homeworld apparatus prior to being stranded on Earth. Jasper, Sapphire, and Ruby were involved in counter-revolutionary activities and faced the Crystal Gems’ two transgressions—moving to protect Earth from Homeworld’s exploitation and flouting Homeworld’s caste system—with bemusement, horror, or disgust. Peridot was in a similar, but younger, position. Sapphire, Ruby, and Peridot all found themselves among the Crystal Gems, and trapped on Earth, long before they had internalized the Crystal Gems’ precepts or abandoned Homeworld thinking. All three lost favor with Homeworld as a result of defying its norms (about fusion for the gems who became Garnet, about taking orders and the utility of an intact Earth for Peridot), not because they joined a revolution. Like Pearl, these gems know that returning to Homeworld is a death sentence, but their memories of it are more recent and tinged with far more sadness. Homeworld was a home these gems loved, or at least functioned within, and they took up arms against it first and foremost to protect themselves, and the new lives that they had to lead in order to live at all, from its rigid constraints. These gems represent a different sort of refugee than Rose Quartz: the kind who emigrated out of desperation rather than ideology. Garnet’s feelings on her exile are opaque, and it’s clear that she has absorbed Crystal Gem ideas about the value of Earth and its creatures, but even her love for Earth is filtered though the fact that it is the only place where she has ever been able to be herself. She may yet be concealing a longing for her homeland on par with Peridot’s.
I think Garnet sees the similarity between Peridot’s experience and her own, and that Peridot might well melt into a puddle of appreciative sobs if Garnet ever points this out.
Jasper’s future on Earth is far less certain. Jasper has been an antagonist to the Crystal Gems for all of her screen time, and has been given no reason to trust the Crystal Gems or abandon Homeworld. It is possible that the threat of being shattered for the failure of her and Peridot’s mission might lead to a break with her command structure and, later, to a truce with the Crystal Gems, but such events are not yet scripted.
Lapis Lazuli presents a unique perspective. A civilian rather than a soldier or government official, she tripped and fell into a warzone and was effectively taken prisoner by both sides, separately, several times before gaining her ultimate freedom. She sees both sides of the Gem War as fundamentally wrongheaded, having suffered from Crystal zeal and Homeworld authoritarianism alike. For all her power, she is the most refugee-like of the gems trapped on Earth: mistrustful of all sides, uninterested in attention, desperate to go home, crestfallen when she realizes she can’t. Where the Crystal Gems proper face Homeworld with active antipathy and even Peridot might grow into overt opposition to their designs, Lapis Lazuli just wants to live. The fact that she has been repeatedly dragged into the Gem War despite feeling no stake in it, with even her current freedom not letting her be uninvolved, is a horror that causes her ongoing trauma. Where the Crystal Gems feel obligated to oppose Homeworld, she feels coerced.
I’ve seen many of these narratives play out in my own life.
The family members who don’t talk about the past much, and hurl themselves into aggressive patriotism to cover the wounds that made them leave.
Immigrants who face their estrangement with sadness and occasionally cry over what they’ll never see, smell, hear, or taste again, because being so severed from the past is painful in ways that our one-citizenship descendants will hopefully never learn firsthand.
Immigrants who latch onto and treasure the remnants, memories, and trinkets of the place they left behind, feeling unmoored and confused without them.
Immigrants who left or stayed away because a conflict has made their former homes unlivable, without particularly caring for either side.
Immigrants of all kinds, with all sorts of relationships to the place they left, trying to deal with the psychological scars of their severance.
Steven Universe shows us a world where all of these stories get told, and for that, I couldn’t be happier.