“Steven Universe,” Rebecca Sugar’s sci-fi musical comedy, very well may be the best show on television right now. I love it with every fiber of my being. I love the bright, clear, rounded animation style. I love how the worldbuilding is entirely filtered through the eyes of its titular protagonist. I love that the vast majority of named and primary characters are women of color. I love its narrative deftness. I love the music, both the video game-inspired score, and the cute, complex original music (check out the recent and remarkable “Here Comes a Thought” from the episode “Mindful Education”). I love that Estelle is a part of something that, somehow, is of comparable quality to the undeniable “American Boy.” But most of all, above all else, I love Pearl.
Let’s back up a bit. “Steven Universe” is a difficult show to summarize, but I will try, though there might be spoilers ahead. After a massive government of sentient gems attempts to conquer and colonize Earth, a process that includes destroying all organic life on the planet, is successfully fought against by a rebellion. The leader of that rebellion, Rose Quartz, falls in love with a goofy, portly musician named Greg Universe. They have a baby, and in the process of making that baby, the alien leader gives up her life to become a part of the new life, leaving Greg, the baby, and the three remaining soldiers in her rebellion to care for the child. Steven grows up as an incredibly positive, gleeful figure in a house with these three gems, learning about the powers he possesses.
Steven is a great character, a wonderful audience surrogate, and his voice actor, Zach Callison, gets better with every episode, but the star of the show for me always will be the gems, three wildly different beings, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, who are trying to live in a world without the guiding force of Rose Quartz. The three are all remarkable characters. Garnet’s very existence is in defiance to the culture that she comes from, and her stoicism does nothing to mask the character’s capability for great humor and great pathos. Amethyst is young, insecure, unstable, resentful, and yet often a source of indescribable joy and glee for other characters and for the audience. But, for me, it’s Pearl that I keep coming back to.
When we first meet Pearl, she is high-strung, sensitive, standoffish. She gleefully recites the lore of her alien race and detests disorganization and disorder (two things that often have her at odds with Amethyst). At the beginning, she seems like a relatively conventional trope, particularly within the world of sitcoms and animation. The “Steven Universe” fanbase’s affectionate nickname for her is “bird mom.” She is a motherly figure, affectionate but intense, orderly and highly socially awkward. It’s a treat to watch, but it’s only the surface.
“Steven Universe” is a “kid’s show.” Its characters are colorfully and simply cartooned, and there are episodes where our heroes fight a giant stack of pancakes, or hang out at an arcade, or resolve conflicts between two warring restaurants, but it’s also always been more than that. On the flip side of those episodes, there are some incredibly well crafted sci-fi dystopias, a fan-favorite non-binary character, and nuanced commentary on consent, mental health, and even relationship abuse. But just as remarkable is the triumph and tragedy of Pearl’s arc.
As it is revealed, Pearl, more than any of the other gems introduced, is designed to be, effectively, an aesthetically pleasing, functionally useless maid. She meets Rose Quartz, the renegade, rebel gem, and somehow defies her programming, becoming a part of the rebellion. Once again, all very typical, not outside of dystopian fiction.
But then she falls absolutely, head-over-heels in love with Rose.
Everything Pearl does in “Steven Universe” is for Rose; her face lights up whenever they see a relic of Rose’s memory in the world. Whenever she talks about her, Pearl’s eyes are literally full of stars. But Rose is gone. She’s dead, and she died because she fell in love with someone else and gave up her consciousness and physical form to create a new life, Steven. And for this to happen, Rose had to not love her back, or, at least, to love Steven’s father more than Pearl. So Pearl is now one of three guardians of a walking, talking reminder that her great love didn’t love her back.
Pearl’s arc, then, is trying to figure out who she is. She was told who she was for her entire life: a maid, a servant, a non-thinking entity, and even though Rose freed her a bit, she was still, out of love, a servant. In her own words, she was “devoted to a person and a cause.” The Pearl we meet doesn’t really have a person to be subservient to anymore, and so her neuroses and anxiety stem from a very real arc of soul-searching, one brilliantly told in pieces and fragments.
The layers and complexities of these fragments are too much to cover in one piece, so I want to look at one of my favorite Pearl-centric episodes, “Sworn to the Sword.” Within the 11 minutes of this episode, Pearl teaches Stephen’s best friend, Connie, how to sword-fight, and in the process begins to spread her unhealthy devotion to and obsession with his mother into a new generation. Making Connie repeat phrases like “I’m nothing” and “I don’t matter,” Pearl is in the beginnings of instilling the kind of subservience that she herself used to feel comfortable in. When Steven, who is observing this, becomes uncomfortable with the kind of devotion she’s inspiring, he breaks up the training. In a heated argument with Stephen, Pearl loses it and shouts “WHY WON’T YOU LET ME DO THIS FOR YOU, ROSE!” It’s a devastating moment of heightened emotion with a single sentence communicating so much loss, so much resentment and tragedy in 10 simple words. But what is more devastating is what comes after in a quiet, contemplative conversation. Connie asks Pearl, “Did Rose make you feel like you were nothing?” Pearl responds, through tears, “Rose made me feel like I was everything.” What she doesn’t realize, and maybe what we fail to recognize as well, is that these two feelings aren’t as far away from each other as they seem to be.
Pearl may be broken, but she’s wonderful. She’s a loving, positive figure, constantly trying to better herself, supporting the ones she loves, growing, changing, and building giant, ballet-dancing robots, and most recently winning the affections of the first woman she’s paid attention to since Rose died (admittedly, the new woman resembles Rose quite a bit). She’s become a more stable and grounded figure in Steven’s life. But still, one can assume that every time she looks at the young man she swore to protect, she sees the great love of her life and deals with the complexities of doing that. And because of that I have to thank “Steven Universe” for giving us a character who has been scarred and hurt in understandable ways and refusing to sweep that hurt under the rug.
Last summer, I attended a touring production of the musical “If/Then” and vaguely recognized a name in the playbill. After a few hours, I recognized a voice, a woman with a small role in the production. I didn’t know why her voice affected me so, and then, in a later scene in the production, she said a word and everything clicked into place. It was Deedee Magno Hall, the voice of Pearl. The word was “Steven.” My tears were real.