Steven Universe Episode 9: Tiger Millionaire

Steven Universe Steven and Amethyst as Tiger Millionaire and Purple Puma

Ingrid and I are re-watching the entire Steven Universe series — yet again — and I thought I’d blog some of my observations. Please note: I’m not writing these as a series summary or recap. I’m just writing down some of my observations and reactions, about individual episodes and the show as a whole. These posts will probably make more sense if you’ve already seen the show, but I hope they inspire the rest of you to check it out, as it really is one of the richest and most emotionally intense things I’ve seen on TV. This post contains spoilers about Steven Universe: the show as a whole, and/or about Episode 9: Tiger Millionaire

“Pumas are cool!”

OMLOG, so much going on with this episode! At least three major themes: learning to accept other’s imperfections, learning that different social arenas have different rules, and gender fluidity.

I believe this is the first time we’ve seen Amethyst alter her gender presentation.* Most of the time she presents as female, and that seems to be the form that comes most naturally to her — but in most of “Tiger Millionaire,” Amethyst shapeshifts into the form of a male wrestler, the Purple Puma.** What I find interesting is that nobody thinks this is interesting. Everyone takes it in their stride, and it’s not the point of the episode. Steven is fascinated by the fact that Amethyst can shapeshift, and he’s super-impressed that she (he? not sure what the right pronoun is here) has a second life as an underground wrestler — but the fact that the wrestler form is male isn’t blinked at, by Steven or anyone else. Gender fluidity comes up more than once in Steven Universe, and I find it really interesting that in “Tiger Millionaire,” the episode where it’s first explored at any length, it’s central to the storyline, and at the same time is widely accepted and is no big deal.

The more overt theme, IMO, is learning that different social arenas have different rules. Steven is fascinated to learn that there’s a world — the wrestling world — where playing at being mean is acceptable and people voluntarily step into the ring to pound on each other. He’s ordinarily such a sweet, generous, affectionate kid, and most of his life with the gems is spent learning to be a good person and a good gem. So unsurprisingly, when he’s given a chance to play-act at being a mean-spirited, conniving jerk, he jumps at it.

But he takes it too far. He takes the mean persona outside the ring and into the audience, buying up all the sodas, refusing to sign autographs, and dissing his fans. People get real-world mad at him, not play-acting mad — and being a sweet, generous, affectionate kid who cares a lot what other people think of him, he gets intensely upset. He has to learn that when you go into a new social arena, you have to learn a new set of rules and boundaries: even in an arena that’s looser and wilder than the one you’re used to, there are still boundaries, and you have to learn where they are. There are literal boundaries here marking the social ones — inside the wrestling ring is one arena, inside the tent but outside the ring is another, outside the tent is yet another. And Steven being Steven, being the emotionally sensitive, tuned-in kid that he is, he immediately gets when he’s crossed this line.

Fluxx card game
It’s a little like playing competitive games — an important social arena for kids — and finding games that fit your level of competitiveness. Some games demand a pretty cutthroat mentality in order to be any fun at all; others can be played in either a more relaxed or more competitive style; and with still others, winning and losing and strategizing isn’t the point at all, the point is entirely in the fun game mechanics. And of course, I can’t help but think of the world of kink, another world where people bring out their cruel and selfish sides in a framework where everyone’s consenting. Steven Universe fans talk a lot about how consent is modeled in the show, usually in the context of fusion — but I think it’s key to this episode as well. The wrestlers have consented to be treated with a fair degree of meanness — but the audience hasn’t, and that’s what Steven has to learn.

What the gems have to learn — Garnet and Pearl, anyway — is to cut people some goddamn slack now and then. In some ways, I think this episode is the opposite of “Serious Steven.” In “Serious Steven,” Steven learns that not every time is play time, and there are times when you have to be serious. In “Tiger Millionaire,” Garnet and Pearl learn that not every time is serious time, and are times when you have to let people, especially kids and teenagers, be playful.

At the beginning of the episode, Garnet and Pearl scold Amethyst for reckless behavior on a mission. Amethyst brushes off Pearl with a “Yeah, yeah… that’s just what makes me so awesome!” But when Garnet tells Amethyst, “You are a crystal gem, you need to act like it,” Amethyst cringes in shame, and then secretly runs off that night to the wrestling ring. I think this is because Garnet isn’t just cautioning Amethyst that her impulsiveness and recklessness are potentially dangerous. She’s saying that these traits, so central to who Amethyst is, make her not part of the family. She’s saying she doesn’t accept Amethyst the way she is. It’s pretty harsh***, even cruel — especially given what we later learn about Amethyst’s origins, and her deep insecurity about being flawed and a disappointment. It’s not surprising that Amethyst crumbles — and then secretly runs off to the place where she can be impulsive and reckless and still be part of the family, where those are the very traits that make her part of the family. And this is a family Amethyst can share with Steven, a family where their wildness and youthful recklessness not only aren’t judged, but are genuinely appreciated.

As Steven says when he tells Purple Puma’s backstory, “He was the wildest cat in the jungle. So wild, the other cats couldn’t take it. So she — I mean he — went to look for somewhere he fit in, somewhere with other people who felt misunderstood. That’s why we’re all here: to be wild and free, and body-slam each other, and wear cool costumes, and make up nicknames. And, and, so, can’t we just — have this?” Steven needs to learn the social rules of this wild new family — and Pearl and Garnet need to learn to let them just have this.

Ingrid notes: Ingrid would like to point out that at least part of Pearl’s concern is completely legitimate. Pearl is freaked out at the fact that Amethyst is using her gem strength to wrestle with humans: Ingrid points out that this is a reasonable, not-excessive concern, since the gems are so much stronger than humans and could seriously injure them. She would also like to point out the presence of the Obviously Gay wrestlers in this episode.

*IIRC, we see a glimpse of Purple Puma in an earlier episode, but we don’t yet know that it’s a male persona.

**We learn later in the series that gems have forms that mostly don’t change unless they’re poofed, but they can change temporarily into just about anything. It takes practice, though, and they can’t keep the new shapes for very long without getting damaged. All the gems can shapeshift, but Amethyst is the one who does it the most and who does it purely for fun.

***It’s also pretty unfair, considering that Pearl and Garnet both scold Amethyst for being irresponsible — and then leave Steven alone for hours, stuck in the kitchen, with hardened goop all over his body.

Steven Universe Episode 9: Tiger Millionaire

6 thoughts on “Steven Universe Episode 9: Tiger Millionaire

  1. 1

    Something I think deserves mentioning in this episode, too: Tiger Millionaire is a “heel”, a wrestling bad guy, and Lars cheers on his heel antics, UNTIL they directly impact him, at which point he is distraught that the bad guy turns out to be a bad guy. (Up until Steven and Amethyst’s “face turn” when faced with Pearl and Garnet, of course, then his love for Tiger Millionaire is resurrected.)

    I can’t help but think there are a lot of people in this world like that, who root for the bad guys, but only until they’re directly affected.

  2. 2

    Great post! I have always loved your writing. It has a simplicity that really connects with me. I really love your posts where you do media analysis and criticism. I learn so much from your insights about “Steven Universe”, “Empire” and “Parks and Recreation”. I especially loved your car parody, it was so funny and I always hear that funny song going through my head.

    Media Studies are a passion of mine. I am diagnosed with an intellectual disability, but I am a college graduate and current grad student in communications. I hope to get my PhD and follow the career path of my idol, Prof. Melissa Click. I hope to do my dissertation on “Yo Gabba Gabba”, “Caillou”, or another similarly important show. Your witty posts about “Steven Universe” show that even people with mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities can do brilliant media critique. Keep it up!

  3. 4

    Thank you for these reviews. I really enjoyed Steven Universe, but you make me realise a lot of things I didn’t even notice about WHY.

  4. 5

    Greta wrote: ‘Most of the time she presents as female, and that seems to be the form that comes most naturally to her — but in most of “Tiger Millionaire,” Amethyst shapeshifts into the form of a male wrestler, the Purple Puma.’

    “Female” and “male” are not “forms”. They are states of mind. To be female or male is simply to know one is female or male. One’s sex is immediately accessible and incorrigible self-knowledge: it is not a matter of morphology. The idea that there is such a thing as a male or female form totally erases my lived experience as a person with a sex identity so unique and personal to me that any word I use to refer to it is necessarily not communicable to you because you have no access to the referent (my subjective internal sex identity).

    To be honest Greta I am very disappointed in your oppressive display of cissexism, and I expect an apology.

  5. 6

    Fiocco di Neve @ #5: Please accept my apologies. It’s difficult to write about gender in a fictional world and with fictional non-human characters, for whom gender plays out differently than it does for humans. I should have done so more carefully.

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