It’s not easy for me to feel good about maternal figures in media. (Gee, I wonder why.) This is something I’m aware of and keep in mind when one of them starts to rub me the wrong way, or otherwise shows their flaws. I can acknowledge Dr. Maheswaran’s harshness and overly protective tendencies, I can see and cathartically process Sadie’s mother’s overweening enthusiasm and difficulty seeing the daughter in front of her, but Rose Quartz creeps me out.
None of the characters in Steven Universe have anything critical to say about Rose Quartz. Even when they describe something about her that has hurt them, they do it with a smile and a laugh. Most of the time, she gets effusive praise followed by wistful sighs, or characters express hurt related to her absence. She seems like a gilded memory, made shiny and flawless by existing only in others’ grief. But no one is that kind, no one is that gentle, and no one manages to never hurt anyone. Something is missing, and we see it in recordings and flashbacks.
Rose Quartz operates as the worst qualities of the manic pixie dream girl, magnified and extended. She shares with her fellow gems a tendency to interpret figurative statements literally, leading to many misunderstandings. Atop this shared quality, she exhibits an airy, ethereal demeanor that mixes just enough sense and nonsense to become instantly fascinating. Her charisma inspires instant devotion in others, enough to spearhead a revolution. She is clearly very intelligent, and the slyness in her voice suggests she is aware of this as well.
Returning that devotion and turning it into a partnership, however, doesn’t seem to be something she is capable of doing. Her relationships are fundamentally unequal, made so by the power imbalances between her and the people around her and kept so by her refusal to acknowledge those imbalances. She is the leader of the revolt against Gem Homeworld, the de facto superior officer of all of the Crystal Gems, a member of a higher gem caste than most of them, claimed to be a more powerful combatant than any of them, and possessed of a species’s worth of advantages over her most recent paramour Greg Universe, and none of this is ever discussed. Her relationship with Pearl vacillates from romance to master and servant, worsened by the Pearl caste’s designation as subordinate and in need of “ownership,” yet Rose Quartz asks Pearl to sacrifice everything she could have had on Homeworld to join her in revolt, as though the answer could have been free and uncoerced. Almost everything seen between her and Greg, and her and Amethyst, shows that she very nearly sees them as pets rather than fellow sapient beings. She seems to actively cultivate star-struck devotion in those who interact with her, yet offers no loyalty in return. Her reaction to Garnet’s appearance is first horror and disgust, second the kind of fascination a scientist brings to a new specimen, and later seeming indifference.
She’s never seen to do something for someone else, whether devoted to her or not, yet her generosity and kindness are continuously lauded. People are devoted to her, but so far, she’s not devoted to anyone. At most, she cost herself whatever she had on Homeworld…by acquiring a highly privileged position on Earth. Her relationships are not reciprocal, at all. Returning the devotion she receives does not appear to be within her mental possibilities. It’s not clear that doing so has ever occurred to her. The closest she comes to self-awareness about this is when she is telling Greg not to get involved with her.
One of Pearl’s darkest moments is when she attempts to duplicate the Rose-Pearl relationship as Pearl-Connie, and chips at Connie’s autonomy and personality until, to Steven’s horror, Connie starts proclaiming, “I don’t matter.”
One wonders if Rose Quartz bothered telling the people around her that producing Steven would end her life, or if her refusal to acknowledge or deal with others’ feelings (other than their devotion) extended even that far.
The one time we see her experiencing serious emotion is in “Straight to Video.” Her message, heart-rending and uplifting in equal measure, managed to be as much about Rose Quartz as it was about Steven. It’s hard for me to imagine Rose Quartz not filling out every checklist of narcissistic parenting tells if she’d been a person in Steven’s life rather than a family legend.
It’s even harder not to see Steven’s increasingly manipulative and boundary-breaking behavior as his mother’s influence showing itself.
She reminds me of my mother in all the worst ways, including a physical resemblance.
Fuck, she creeps me out.