Ingrid and I are re-watching Steven Universe, and I’m blogging 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 seen the show, but I hope they inspire the rest of you to check it out, as it’s 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 13: So Many Birthdays.
“I never realized birthdays meant leaving things behind.”
Adults and kids are sometimes like alien species. It can be so hard for kids to understand adults, and vice versa. When I was growing up, adulthood seemed both glamorous and alarming: I though teenagers were the most sophisticated creatures on the planet and I couldn’t wait to get into high school, but at the same time I fought like a tiger whenever I’d grown out of clothes I liked. Kids have a hard time even parsing age: I could never grasp that adults had limits to their energy and physical ability, and yet anyone over thirty seemed ancient. Adults have a slight edge here, in that they’ve been kids in the past, but that advantage can undercut itself: adults often think that because they were once kids, they must understand them. In Steven Universe, the gems’ alien-ness is a metaphor for a lot of things — but one of the most important, I think, is the age gap, and it makes for one of the most emotionally poignant episodes of the show.
In “So Many Birthdays,” Steven learns that the Gems are literally thousands of years older than he is. (The age gap between adults and kids really can seem that vast.) And his response is very kid-like. Instead of asking about history, or how their bodies can survive that long, he fixates on the fact that they’ve never had birthday parties.
But his attempt to throw them a party is an exercise in wild miscommunication. It’s more than miscommunication: it’s like they’re speaking different languages, to talk about totally different things. Steven tries to tell jokes and do a clown routine, but the adult Gems are either oblivious or alarmed. (Boy, does that ever resonate with me: one of the biggest gaps between adults and kids is the humor gap, with adult humor seeming incomprehensible to kids and kid humor being so clumsily obvious to adults that it’s not funny. In fact, some of my fondest childhood memories are of finding humor that our whole family could genuinely enjoy together.) The adult Gems try to go along with Steven’s party, but it’s obvious from the outset that they’re mostly just humoring him. Even Amethyst, the most youthful of the three, doesn’t grasp the concept of a piñata — or the underlying concept that for kids, what makes candy appealing is often the delivery system. Kids want candy to be in necklaces or wax mustaches or inside a papier-mâché animal that you crush with a baseball bat: Amethyst just wants the candy. “You had candy, and you didn’t just give it to us?”
Ironically, once Steven begins to grasp that his party isn’t fun for the adult Gems, that’s when he starts to become conscious that he’s getting older, and starts wondering if even he is too old for these little-kid pleasures. Or maybe that isn’t ironic at all. Maybe an increasing understanding of adult experience is part of how we grow up. The last straw is when he literally can’t fit into his little-kid play car: frustrated and sad, he takes a walk into town so he can think — and rapidly begins to age.
The sequence where Steven gets older is very much like the stages of adult life, seen through a kid’s eyes. He’s a teenager when he’s self-conscious and easily embarrassed, intensely wanting dignity at the exact time he has it the least. He’s a young adult when he sees himself as being in control of himself and his life. (Of course, his concept of adult responsibility is donning a T-shirt that says “Professional Beach Hunk.”) He becomes middle-aged when he gets tired, irritable, and humorless, unable to find pleasure even at the donut shop. And he becomes old when he becomes hyper-conscious of his physical fragility.
Of course, this episode isn’t just about age gaps between adults and kids. It’s about another aspect of age that’s hard for kids to grasp: mortality. When Steven learns of the Gems’ great age, he doesn’t just flip out over their lack of birthday parties. He gets intensely distressed when he learns that, while the adult Gems have very long lives, they don’t live forever, and can be injured and die. You might even see the whole frantic birthday party as an attempt to repress the awareness of mortality by reverting to a more childish view of the passage of time. And interestingly, this is one of the few episodes where the Gems not only don’t fix things, but get flustered, flounder, and actually do more harm than good. Even the usually unflappable Garnet falls short: there’s a moment when she approaches Steven and takes him by the shoulders, and you think she’s going to handle things with her usual wisdom and strength, but she just starts shaking him in frustration. “I thought violence would be the answer!”
Aging and mortality are not problems adults can fix. Not for kids, and not for each other. We can give each other whatever wisdom and coping mechanisms we’ve come up with, but ultimately, we have to find our own ways to handle this unsolvable problem. When Steven lets age and aging overwhelm him, the only real help the Gems can give is to support him in feeling like himself.
Side notes: This episode has one of the dirtiest jokes in the series. Steven, after playing the arcade game Whacker Man: “A boy on the cusp of manhood can’t spend the whole day whackering.” It’s very much in keeping with this episode, actually: it’s a joke that adult viewers will find hilarious, while whizzing over most kids’ heads. I have to note the apparent continuity error of Pearl saying she likes pie, when it’s later revealed that she is actively repulsed by food and eating: Ingrid thinks she’s just being polite, but I think the writers just goofed. And I love Amethyst eating the five-year-old burrito. It makes me nostalgic for my college years: we had a pot of macaroni and cheese that ended up a lot like that burrito.
Ingrid notes: Ingrid points out that there’s another dirty joke in this episode: “Will you help me into my birthday suit?” She also points out that there’s some great character exposition in this episode, like Pearl insisting that they’re too mature for the party, and Amethyst immediately booping her on the nose with her birthday hat. And she loves how Garnet decided she liked the birthday queen outfit: “It makes me feel — important.” Ingrid is Like, “You’re Garnet! Everyone thinks you’re incredible! You’ve saved the world multiple times! Do you not already feel important?”