Creating Something Entirely New: Queerness in Steven Universe’s “The Answer”

Ruby and Sapphire dance in "The Answer."
After two years of not liking Steven Universe, I recently gave it another shot and discovered that I suddenly really like it. (More on that in another post, probably.) My favorite episode was of course “The Answer,” because of its aesthetic and musical beauty and for its honestly profound portrayal of queer love.

Out of curiosity, I googled it to see what other (re)viewers thought. In doing so, I found this utterly bizarre AV Club article, which states that the episode “doesn’t really tell us anything we couldn’t have guessed, or anything that we really needed to know” and “feels like a nice little present to the fans.” The song, “Something Entirely New,” is about “normal relationship things (Ruby says Sapphire is different, she swears, and Sapphire has never fused before, she promises),” which is “deeply color-by-numbers for this kind of love story, but it’s still deeply earnest.” It’s “a standard ‘getting to know you’ montage.”

I hate to be snarky, but to be totally honest, this is what happens when you let straight people write reviews.

What “standard ‘getting to know you’ montage” is about two femme-of-center people abandoning their entire species and planet in order to be together, despite being threatened with death for it? How many fluffy romcoms have you seen where the couple doesn’t even realize that it’s physically or psychologically possible for them to be together, because they have been raised to consider it unthinkable?

(That’s not even getting into the fact that the show’s depiction of gem fusion is heavily based on consent, which is a concept apparently missing from most romcom filmmakers’ vocabularies.)

If you’re queer, on the other hand–especially if you’re a queer woman or nonbinary person–Ruby and Sapphire’s love story probably felt very familiar to you, but not from the media.

As queer representation in film and television is finally expanding (albeit glacially), there are still very few depictions that feel true to what our experience is actually like. Sure, sometimes there’s the religious homophobic parent or the bullying classmates or the angst about coming out, for whatever that’s worth. Usually it’s just two people falling randomly into bed together without any exploration of how they might’ve gotten there.

What “The Answer” does incredibly well is that it portrays that “unthinkableness” of it, really makes that come alive. It’s something I wrote about recently in my piece on Medium, “What It Feels Like for a Queer Girl“:

It doesn’t matter if the other person is openly queer themselves, even. It’s not just about fear of homophobic backlash or an especially cruel rejection. It’s the pervasive, gnawing, choking feeling that what you want is simply impossible. It feels like trying to make two parallel lines meet. Like climbing all the way to the top of one of M.C. Escher’s dizzying staircases. Every time I’ve expressed desire for another woman — and don’t misunderstand, there have been plenty of times, despite it all — I’ve felt like laughing at myself. Not funny ha-ha, but ridiculous ha-ha, like what the fuck am I doing ha-ha.

To me, being queer is living with this kind of cognitive dissonance forever — that something feels so natural to me, and yet I am convinced of its impossibility, and that conviction is firmer than almost anything else I believe.

With Garnet’s story, Steven Universe uses an allegory to show how difficult it can be to start imagining these new possibilities when you’ve never been allowed to. On the gems’ Homeworld, fusion is only for two or more gems of the same type (and only for a specific, time-limited purpose, like a battle). The first time Ruby and Sapphire fuse, it’s an accident–they didn’t even think that it was possible. They didn’t even think to wonder if it was possible. But as it turns out, it is, and they realize that they like it.

The song that AV Club calls “color-by-numbers” is actually a subtle exploration of that experience.

Where did we go?
What did we do?
I think it was something
Entirely new

And it wasn’t quite me
And it wasn’t quite you
I think it was someone
Entirely new

Trust me, the average hetero couple hooking up in your standard romcom knows exactly what they did.

Ruby: Oh, um, well–I just can’t stop thinking–
Sapphire: So, um, did you say I was different?
Ruby: –and you hadn’t before?
Sapphire: Of course not! When would I have ever?
Ruby: I’m so sorry–
Sapphire: No, no, don’t be!
Ruby: –and now you’re here forever!
Sapphire: What about you?
Ruby: What about me?
Sapphire: Well, you’re here too. We’re here together.

This isn’t about “I’m your first, right?” This is about two people trying to figure out what just happened and why it felt so different from anything they’ve ever experienced. Sapphire is “different” for Ruby because Ruby only ever got to fuse with other rubies. And she “hasn’t before” because sapphires don’t get to fuse at all. On Homeworld, everyone has their role, and they don’t step out of it–until now.

Cotton Candy Garnet explores her new form.
I love this adorable moment when Garnet figures out how her new body moves.

(Later, we find out what happens to Homeworld gems who “came out wrong” or who want to live in fusions–they hide away underground, under threat of capture and shattering.)

So unthinkable is Ruby and Sapphire’s fusion that Sapphire–who can see the future, and up until that moment saw her entire life laid out before her–literally didn’t see this coming. And when it does, it changes everything, costing Ruby and Sapphire their social positions, their home, their friends, their ideologies, and very nearly their lives.

Pretty relatable for anyone who’s ever come out and been rejected.

(Luckily for Sapphire and the lives of everyone she loves, her future vision eventually returns.)

I’m not surprised that lots of folks apparently missed the queer nuances of this 12-minute bit of children’s television, and I’m amazed at what it somehow managed to emcompass in those 12 minutes. I hope that it’s made a lot of other queer folks feel validated, and I hope that my perspective on it helps make our experiences more real to those who don’t share them.

Rose Quarts tells Garnet that Garnet herself is the answer to all of her own questions.

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Creating Something Entirely New: Queerness in Steven Universe’s “The Answer”

Polyamory 201: “Monogamous for the Right Person”

When it comes to relationships, I usually try to let myself rely on my gut feelings a little more than I do in other situations. They tend to be pretty spot-on when it comes to relationships, and ignoring them has usually been pretty regrettable.

One of the things I have a gut feeling about is ostensibly polyamorous people who say that they’d be “willing” to be monogamous…”for the right person.”

Recently I was listening to a new-ish podcast called Hannah and Matt Know It All, in which the titular polyamorous married couple reads advice columns from around the internet and adds their own perspective. Lately they’ve been getting their own listener questions, too. I love Hannah and Matt’s progressive, consent-aware takes on things. Polyamory doesn’t actually come up all that often on the podcast, but recently they did a whole episode on it since they’ve been getting more questions about it.

One question in the episode (at 9:38) was from a woman who prefers monogamy, but is giving polyamory a shot because she’s really into a guy who prefers it. He has another girlfriend too, but he’s also mentioned to her that he’d be “willing to be monogamous for the right person.” The letter-writer is asking for perspectives on polyamory to help her understand it so that she can make this relationship work, but Hannah and Matt (and their guest, Laurel, who happens to be Matt’s girlfriend [cute!]) focus in on that “monogamous for the right person” bit.

Laurel points out that by framing his preferences in this way, the guy in the letter is setting up a competitive situation between his two girlfriends–never a healthy thing–and not-so-subtly implying that if he doesn’t agree to be monogamous with the letter-writer, then…she’s not “the right person.” Ouch.

And there it is. I’d never thought about it in those terms before, but what really bothers me about these “monogamous for the right person” folks is that, intentionally or otherwise, they’re ensuring that any partner they have who may prefer monogamy feels like they have to prove themselves worthy of it.

I’ve met poly people who are okay with monogamy. That’s been many of my partners. But their framing was entirely different. They usually told me that they’d be totally fine just being with me, but that if I want to be polyamorous, that’s cool and maybe they’ll take the opportunity to date other people too. Sometimes they have, sometimes they haven’t.

And while I didn’t understand at first–it always seemed like polyamory versus monogamy is a divide you’d fall clearly on one side of–it eventually made more sense.

For these folks, unlike for me, monogamy doesn’t feel like a suffocating trap. And for these folks, unlike for many monogamous people, polyamory doesn’t feel like getting cheated on or left behind. So they’re happy to do either one, and if either one is particularly important to their current partner, that’s what they go with.

But it wasn’t a matter of “monogamous for the right person.” It was a matter of, “I don’t really care, so let’s do what you prefer.”

While I hate to play No True Poly, something reads a little weird about the idea of labeling yourself as polyamorous while searching for The One Partner To Rule Them All or whatever. Back when my parents were getting together, I think folks just called that “dating.”

In fact, I read a book about the history of dating recently and it turns out that this idea of being monogamous before you get engaged (or close to it) is actually fairly new. It used to be that people–especially young people who aren’t ready for marriage–commonly dated several people fairly casually until they felt a special connection with one of them and chose to invest all of their romantic energy into that.

When I was in high school and still dating monogamously, my parents thought it was totally bizarre and kind of unhealthy that teens took “exclusivity” so seriously. What, they asked, is the point of forcing yourself into a relationship that has all the trappings of engagement when you know you’re not even remotely likely to stay with this person after graduation? It’s like the worst parts of commitment and none of the best.

I didn’t get it then, but I see the point now.

Obviously, I don’t think that preparing for marriage is the only valid reason to be monogamous. Plenty of people like monogamous relationships whether or not they’re intending to take things up the escalator. But “monogamous for the right person” implies that your choice to be monogamous isn’t really about you and your comfort level or preferences; it’s about your partner and whether or not they’re “right” to bestow this great honor upon.

I don’t think there’s really a way to have a healthy committed relationship with someone who identifies as “monogamous for the right person.” If you prefer monogamy, and you’re hoping that you and this person will be “the right people” for each other, you still have to go through a waiting period while this person dates around and figures out which (if any) of their partners is “the right person” to be monogamous with. It’s literally The Bachelor with a faux-progressive veneer and probably not even on a beach.

And if you prefer polyamory, then there’s no point in wasting your time, because sooner or later this person will either want monogamy with you–and that’s a non-starter–or they’ll dump you for someone else.

The only way this really works is if you’re only interested in something casual, and it doesn’t bother you too much if the person ends up cutting things off to be monogamous with someone else. That’s not polyamory. That’s casual dating.

Regardless, waiting around for your partner to either dump you or to dump their other partners is not a healthy polyamorous situation. Polyamory is not about worrying that your partner will “pick” someone else, or trying to decide which of your partners to “pick.” It’s about being open to multiple loving relationships.

Sometimes that means that one day, for whatever reason, you find yourself committed to just one person, and they are committed only to you. But if you’re looking for a monogamous relationship, then you’re a monogamous person. Own it.

I can only imagine there’s a huge overlap between “monogamous for the right person” poly people and “wow my partners are just so jealous of each other all the time, I can’t deal with all this drama, why can’t you guys just get along” poly people. That’s because cultivating jealousy, like managing jealousy, is a skill, and it’s one that people deploy somewhat intentionally, even if they don’t realize exactly what they’re doing.

The way that we make polyamory work on an ethical and psychological level is by reminding ourselves and each other that being with multiple people does not mean that anyone is better or worse or enough or not enough. It means that, just as we may love more than one friend, child, parent, sibling, cat, or sourdough bread recipe, we can also love more than one partner—for whatever definition of “love” you’re using.

“Monogamous for the right person” blows that right up and destroys the sometimes-fragile trust that polyamory requires. These folks want you to laboriously prove to them that you’re The One. Forget it. As polyamory shows us, there are plenty of wonderful humans out there to love.

And cats. Also cats.

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Polyamory 201: “Monogamous for the Right Person”

“How can you be both an atheist and Jewish?”

I get this question so often (especially online) that now you get an entire blog post just on this topic!

So, here’s how.

1) Judaism is a religion, but being Jewish isn’t necessarily.

Jewish people have at various times considered ourselves and been considered by others a faith, a nationality, an ethnicity, a race, and a culture. While the distinctions between some of these categories are blurry–and some of them are recognized mainly by anti-semites–that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

For instance, the fact that groups such as Nazis and Soviets considered Jewish people a separate and inferior race has obviously had a huge effect both on Jewish history and on how many Jewish people see themselves. To use the obvious example, Hitler didn’t hate the Jews because they worshiped the wrong god or because they didn’t eat cheeseburgers; he hated them (among other reasons) because he considered them genetically flawed and therefore dangerous to his vision of a perfect Germany.

(Weird how Nazi types can never seem to decide if Jewish people are genetically flawed or genetically so fucking good at money shit that we literally run the whole world. It’s enough to give a Jew an identity crisis, for fuck’s sake.)

Anyway, Nazis and Soviets don’t get to define us–we do. And for many of us, the significant things about being Jewish have less to do with prayers and more to do with food, music, language, ethical values, history, overcoming oppression, bad jokes, holidays, drinking alcohol, arguing all the time, and so on.

Because Jews have historically tended to marry and have children with other Jews–not just for religious reasons but because non-Jews have typically wanted nothing to do with us–Jewish people are particularly susceptible to certain genetic abnormalities, and there are certain phenotypes particularly associated with Jewish people (i.e. My hair, olive skin color, and facial structure) just like there are with other ethnicities.

None of this means that all Jewish people are culturally, physically, or historically identical, and it’s extremely irritating when people use that as evidence against anything I just said. (It’s also extremely irritating that non-Jewish people feel the need to argue with anything I just said, period.) There are also distinct ethnic subgroups that evolved after Jewish people were expelled from the area now known as Israel/Palestine. The Ashkenazim, like me and my family, are the ones who ended up in Eastern Europe. The Sephardim settled in Spain and Portugal and were exiled from there in the 15th century. The Mizrahim hail from the Middle East and Central Asia. There are also smaller groups, such as the Beta Israel from Ethiopia and the Kaifeng Jews from China.

These subgroups differ in lots of ways, including language, customs, and religious observance. Ashkenazi Jews traditionally speak Yiddish, name their children after relatives who have passed away (this explains both my first and middle names), and pronounce Hebrew differently than other groups of Jews. Sephardi Jews traditionally speak Ladino (and potentially tons of other languages depending on where exactly they were from), name their children after living relatives, and sometimes face racism from their Ashkenazi cousins, which is bullshit, but there ya go.

I could go into a lot more detail about non-religious aspects of being Jewish, but that’s a good start.

2) Belief in god isn’t particularly central in most Jewish communities and practices.

If you’re not Jewish, you may not believe me if I told you that in my many years of attending Jewish services, celebrations, and events in a variety of different traditions and communities, the subject of any individual’s belief (or lack thereof) in god hasn’t ever really come up. But it’s true.

While Jewish prayers and texts obviously reference god copiously (usually with terms like “Hashem,” “Elohim,” “Adonai,” and other clever ways to avoid using god’s actual name which is forbidden), individual belief in god isn’t central to most Jewish conceptions of how to be a good person. That tends to focus more on doing good deeds, not breaking commandments, and generally not being an asshole. I say “most” because of that whole thing about two Jews, three opinions. Jewish rabbis and scholars disagree with each other on just about every single detail of Jewish history or practice, and while certain views get a lot more consensus than others, the idea is that you’re supposed to argue about it.

So while there are probably rabbis out there who would say that I’m a bad person–or even “not a Jew”–because I don’t believe in god, they are in the minority and you’d probably have to go to certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn or Jerusalem that I honestly try to avoid in order to find them. I’ve never had a rabbi take issue with my personal beliefs. I’ve never been questioned about my personal beliefs at synagogue, or expected to express or defend them. I have never had a Jewish person of any level of observance react negatively to finding out that I’m an atheist; many of them simply say that they’re atheists too. The one time I clearly remember telling a rabbi that I don’t believe in god, it simply led to a friendly debate in which the rabbi challenged me to explain the mathematical improbability of life on earth. (You may not agree that it’s mathematically improbable, but regardless, nobody told me I was going to hell.)

The vast majority of rabbis and other Jewish leaders that I’ve interacted with did not express or even show any sign of judgment or dissatisfaction with me about my beliefs or level of observance. They simply wanted me to participate to whatever extent I felt comfortable, because they liked seeing more young Jewish people get involved in the community and help it grow and improve.

3) Because I fucking said so.

Here I have to admit that I find it irritating as all heck when random people (usually on OkCupid, usually with a skeptical tone) ask me “how” I can be both Jewish and an atheist. First of all, it’s eminently googleable. Try it.

Second, even if all of that stuff I just wrote wasn’t a well-known and accepted viewpoint within most Jewish communities–why does it matter?

People identify how they identify. There are also many atheists from Muslim and Catholic backgrounds who still include that in their personal identity, although they usually call it “ex-Muslim” or “lapsed Catholic.” But that’s because Islam and Catholicism don’t have a long tradition of secularism dating back centuries. Within Islam and Catholicism, atheists don’t get a prominent voice. As far as I know, there are no secular mosques or churches within Islam and Catholicism. There are secular synagogues, and rabbis who lead them.

Point is, many people who were raised Muslim or Catholic but who no longer believe in god still identify with various aspects of those cultures, whether it’s giving up something difficult for Lent, celebrating Eid, or simply acknowledging that their upbringing affects them even today and that whether or not they believe in god, they still care deeply about their religious families or about issues facing those religious communities.

Religion isn’t the only category in which some people have complex and seemingly contradictory identities. There are bi dykes and lesbians who sometimes date men and nonbinary femmes and people who identify with different genders depending on the day and mixed-race folks who call themselves “Black” in certain contexts and “mixed-race” in others and asexual folks who have sex and biromantic homosexuals and homoromantic bisexuals and straight queers and married poly people and Jewish atheists. Sound confusing? Good! It’s not supposed to be simple.

Identity is complicated because humans are complicated. The vast majority of the times you feel like someone’s identity is contradictory, it’s probably because you’re defining words much more narrowly than they are.

If you think that “Jewish atheist” makes no sense, chances are you have a very narrow and ahistorical view of what it means to be Jewish (and probably what it means to be an atheist, too). Chances are I’m one of the first Jewish people you’ve ever really talked to about what being Jewish actually means.

And I get that. I do. But I’m getting pretty tired of having to justify an identity that feels obvious to me and to provide evidence of my own existence.

Every time I hear “but how can you be both Jewish and an atheist,” it feels extremely invalidating. The way this question is usually phrased implies strongly that the correct answer is “you can’t,” and that I’m somehow mistaken about one or both of these identities, and that you, a person with no Jewish background and clearly very little Jewish knowledge, know better than me.

Here’s a fact: polls and studies consistently find that about half of Jewish people are agnostics, atheists, or otherwise doubters of god’s existence. Less than half of Jewish people consider themselves “religious.”

Jews who openly question god or deny god’s existence are hardly unknown and include Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Franz Kafka, Isaac Asimov, Howard Zinn, Neil Gaiman, Stan Lee, Stanley Kubrick, Baruch Spinoza, Peter Singer, Noam Chomsky, Saul Alinsky, Hannah Arendt, Elie Wiesel, George Soros, Mark Zuckerberg, Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, and Albert Einstein.

So I think I’m in pretty good company, and I don’t need to be corrected when I say that I’m a proud Jewish atheist.

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“How can you be both an atheist and Jewish?”