Spoilers for Steven Universe and Steven Universe: The Movie below.
“Love hurts,” wails the Scottish rock singer Dan McCafferty in Nazareth’s famous cover of the Everly Brothers tune of the same name. It’s a message regurgitated regularly by popular media in all formats. The romantic flings and failures of Fleabag? Ouch. Nicole Krauss’s novel The History of Love? Whew. Painful, and on-the-nose at that. Listen to Joni Mitchell’s Blue and try not to cry. Human beings: We like to wallow!
Except that’s not quite it, is it? What really hurts isn’t love but loving, and all the small things that challenge it. To care for friends and family and partners and self in spite of fights and failings and trauma and change — that’s what’s hard, and that’s what hurts. That’s the work that’s never done.
Steven Universe: The Movie, like the Cartoon Network series that precedes it, is a user’s manual for performing this work, and a beautifully jewel-toned, musically ambitious, plot-driven manual at that. Over the course of five seasons, creator Rebecca Sugar’s motley cast of human beings and alien Gems learns many lessons, but paramount among them is this: Growth comes from choosing to confront one’s traumatic experiences in spite of hardships and is founded on self-acceptance and healthy relationships built on empathy and mutual support.
This isn’t exactly untrod territory for children’s or all-ages animation. Still, perhaps no cartoon has explored this theme with the same honesty, insistence, and complexity as Steven Universe, the first show in Cartoon Network’s history to be created solely by a woman, let alone one who identifies as nonbinary. The series is packed with femme-coded nonbinary characters in various stages of emotional development and a wide range of relationships: platonic and romantic, abusive and supportive, unequal and equal. By the time the movie begins, all of Steven’s friends and family — especially the three Gems closest to Steven, his aunts-cum-best-friends Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl — have grown into balanced beings who know how to love and accept themselves and those they care about.
And Steven, the half-human, half-Gem son of a mysterious, powerful, revered, and very imperfect late mother, has learned from, and helped, all of them. He does so by harnessing and encouraging the very thing that’s scariest about the act of loving and the process of trauma recovery: change.
The Steven Universe movie — which premiered on Labor Day and will run an encore presentation on September 7 — serves as a sort of series-in-miniature, encapsulating the themes Sugar’s show has so well established. The show’s five seasons are neatly summarized in an early musical number, “Happily Ever After,” detailing not only the series arc but, as it is equally important, each of the four main characters’ development over the course of the series. Over the next hour and change, they’re forced to relive that development in order to recover their memories and powers after Spinel, a dangerous new foe traumatized after eons spent in an abusive friendship with Steven’s mother, employs a strange weapon, the Rejuvinator, to return them back to, in effect, their factory settings. And the way each character recovers represents a different lesson necessary for those who wish to love themselves and others.
For Amethyst, the key to growth is accepting affection and loving herself as she is. Amethyst was made to be a soldier in an intergalactic war waged by the Gem Homeworld against a renegade band of Gems calling themselves the Crystal Gems. Led by Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, and including Garnet, Pearl, and eventually Amethyst, the Crystal Gems are determined to save Earth from Homeworld’s attempts to terraform the planet into a colony. But Amethyst, whose development was stunted due to irregularities while she was being made, consistently doubts both her worth and her purpose throughout the series. She’s ashamed of her beginnings, afraid she will never outrun them, and unable to love herself.
When Amethyst is hit with the Rejuvinator, she becomes a mimic, unable to do anything on her own but replicate the appearances and behaviors of those around her in an effort to just fit in. Eventually, it’s Steven’s friendship and love that convince her she’s worthy of being loved as she is and bring back her sense of self. “Through whoever you’ve been, through whatever you’ll be, through whatever you lose, you will always have me,” Steven and Amethyst promise each other in song. In Steven’s love for who she is, Amethyst finds her own.
Pearl’s growth comes from learning self-confidence and independence — and, more explicitly, from rejecting the notion that co-dependence is a healthy form of loving. Made as a servant to higher-ranking Gems, Pearl lives to serve, and this Pearl served Steven’s mother, who became an object of her obsession that Pearl felt she was nothing without. But over the course of the series, Pearl learns to be confident in her worth outside of her relationship with Rose, realizing that healthy relationships involve accepting each other’s individuality and space.
Rejuvinated, Pearl reverts to her old ways, seeing herself as nothing but a servant for the first person she sees when she’s brought back: Steven’s father Greg. It takes Steven and Greg reminding Pearl that she’s her own person, and of the importance of being “independent together,” to bring her back to herself. “Nothing is holding me back now,” Pearl sings as she remembers who she is. “No one can push me around. What do I want to be? I’m the master of me.”
Garnet’s growth is a reminder that cooperation and honesty are the foundation of living with others. Garnet is a fusion of two Gems, Ruby and Sapphire — the equivalent of a Gem marriage, and anathema between two different kinds of Gems on Homeworld. Her backstory is one of self-doubt, and when Ruby and Sapphire first fuse, Garnet is afraid and ashamed of what she has become, even as she’s drunk on the newness of the experience.
After being Rejuvinated, Garnet unfuses, and despite Steven’s successful effort to help the two fuse again, she can’t quite remember her old self. But watching Steven defend her against an out-of-control Spinel and honestly state his intentions and feelings, Garnet remembers. “I’ve known hardship and confusion,” she says, “but love can live through it all if we face the truth together.”
The lesson for Steven, the ever-compassionate, ever-evolving center of the show and movie and the Crystal Gem with the most to learn and to teach, serves as the centerpiece of it all: He must remind himself of the necessity and power of change. Steven’s half-human, so getting hit with the Rejuvinator doesn’t make him lose his memories — just his powers. But he has a hard time accepting this new reality in which his friends have forgotten everything about themselves, and his refrain throughout the movie reflects it: He wants everything to stay the same, and he wants his happily ever after.
In the end, Steven realizes that his stubborn insistence on everything staying the same as it was before Spinel arrived was what was holding him back. “All those struggles, I learned from them and I grew,” he says as he regains his powers, singing: “I can make an effort if I only understand that I can make a change.”
Throughout it all, Steven is committed not to defeating Spinel but to caring for her and helping her learn to care for herself in the midst of her pain. Finally, he remembers why: Because when it comes to loving, and to recovering from our hurt, the process is never over. “There’s no such thing as happily ever after,” Steven says with a sad smile to a defeated, repentant Spinel near the movie’s end. “I’ll always have more work to do.”
It’s one of the hardest lessons for any human being to learn in a world that constantly tells us that “love hurts,” but it’s a lesson Steven Universe knows bears repeating. Love, when done right, doesn’t hurt. That’s not the cliché about love that’s true. Healthy love requires a lot: self-worth and self-confidence, honesty and trust, empathy and growth. When done right, love does exactly what Steven does when using one of his most precious powers: It heals.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot stacked against those working through traumatic experiences and the memories and habits of unhealthy relationships. It also doesn’t mean that learning how to do it right doesn’t isn’t painful along the way. In the end, there’s always more work to be done. And work is hard. Work hurts.