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 14: Lars and the Cool Kids.
“Gettin’ me a P. Gettin’ me a za. Gettin’ me a P-P-P-P-pizza!”
Lots of Steven Universe episodes are about kids’ relationships with adults. This one is unusual, in that it’s mostly about young people’s relationships with each other.
I have this vivid memory from middle school. I was sitting near a group of cool kids and one girl who was cool-kid adjacent: she wasn’t in the inner circle, but she hung out with them sometimes and clearly wanted them to accept her. The adjacent girl said she liked Olivia Newton-John; one of the cool kids said something like “Ew, I hate her so much, with that high squeaky voice” — and the adjacent girl got flustered and quickly said, “Oh, yeah, I hate her too.” I remember it to this day. It was so sad, and so transparent. If I noticed it, surely the girls she was talking to must have noticed it as well. Like, were they not going to remember what she said literally fifteen seconds ago? Were they not going to remember how the topic of Olivia Newton-John came up?
I have more sympathy for her now than I did at the time. At the time, I was kind of contemptuous: I have a bit more insight now into human frailty in general and my own in particular, and can recognize all the times I’ve done the same thing or similar. I can’t remember openly reversing myself like that (although I probably have), but I’ve certainly expressed opinions and then kept my mouth shut when others around me scoffed. Being a social human being is hard. It’s especially hard for kids and teenagers, when you’re just starting to form a social identity and social life separate from your family. It’s easy to say “Just be yourself” — but what if your natural self is awkward, self-conscious, and bad at talking with people you don’t know well?
Steven is a natural. He has an almost supernatural ability (possibly even an actual supernatural ability) to make friends and get along with people. But Lars, not so much. See above, re: awkward and self-conscious. And he’s far too quick to blame others for his social failures. This is especially ironic since he’s blaming Steven, who is the god-king of getting along with people and actually paves the way for Lars to hang with the cool kids. Part of me wishes that the episode about social hierarchies didn’t put so much blame on the outsider trying to be cool. But given the depressingly widespread phenomenon of entitled, resentful jerks who refuse to consider that their own behavior might be part of why they don’t do well with others ([cough] MRAs [cough]), the lesson is probably worth teaching: Social skills can be learned, and if you want to make friends, start by not being a jerk.
One of the things I like about “Lars and the Cool Kids” is that the cool kids aren’t terrible. They’re pretty decent, mostly. It’s so common for pop culture to show cool kids as malevolent monsters, delighting in making people feel like inferior outsiders, deliberately hurting people and cruelly taking pleasure in it. It’s understandable, since so many people felt like outsiders in high school and still carry resentment about it — but it’s too simple. I like that in Steven Universe, the cool kids are just — well, teenagers, hanging out and shooting the shit, enjoying each others’ company and talking about stuff they do and don’t like. They’re not always sensitive to the effect their words have on others (Buck is kind of a jerk about Lars’s snake shirt, for instance), but they’re not mean. And it’s made clear in a later episode, “The New Lars,” that, while Lars isn’t their favorite person, it’s not because he’s uncool: it’s because he’s unpleasant. As soon as he (temporarily) becomes a pleasant person to hang out with, they enthusiastically accept him.
I have another vivid memory, this time from high school, of coming out of a bathroom stall and seeing one of the cool girls sitting in the bathroom, crying. I’m ashamed to say this, but it had literally never occurred to me until that moment that cool kids could be heartbroken. And I remember a conversation with a friend many years later, who told me about another friend of his who’d been a popular kid in high school (paraphrasing here): “She said it was like being in a fishbowl. And most people didn’t really like her. They envied her, they wanted to be close to her, but mostly they resented her and gossiped about her. Popular didn’t mean lots of people liked you. It meant lots of people paid attention to you.”
I’m not saying that’s how it always is. I know there are plenty of malevolent mean kids in high school. I’m saying it’s how it sometimes is. We see more of the cool kids’ humanity throughout Steven Universe (especially in “Joy Ride,” when they talk about the pain they’re escaping from): Buck, Jenny, and Sour Cream are interesting, complex, fleshed-out side characters, and it’s a refreshing change.
“Lars and the Cool Kids” is a difficult episode to watch, and it’s more so in some ways after you’ve seen the whole show and have more of a sense of just how much of a jerk Lars is. He’s a little nicer at the end of this episode, but it doesn’t stick. I have so much sympathy for Lars in this episode: I totally get that thing of being so self-consciously eager to fit in, you wind up putting people off. It’s painful to watch. But it’s also painful to watch him being so terrible: resentful, self-involved, and blaming Steven for everything that doesn’t go his way.
Side notes: I’m wildly entertained by the Gems’ assumption that police tape will keep people away from the danger pond. I’m reminded of the Simpsons episode, “Radio Bart,” where Bart falls down a well, and at the end, Willie responds to this danger by putting up a sign saying “Caution: Well.” And I love the fancy martial-arts moves Pearl uses to pull police tape from out of her gem — and that Garnet and Amethyst use to put it up.
Also, take note of the moss-flowers at the end. Note that there are little gems at their centers. I don’t know what this means, but there are lots of fan theories about it.
Ingrid notes: There’s a lot of interesting exposition in this episode about Rose: about her philosophy of life, her interactions with Earth, how she valued life on Earth and cultivated Earth species. And she notes that while Steven starts by looking up to Lars even when he’s being terrible, he gets angry at Lars — something he rarely does — once Lars starts saying shitty things about Rose.