“Bismuth” and Steven Universe’s Racial Coding Problem

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Since season one, I have waved the flag for Steven Universe, going so far as to introduce it to my WWAC co-writers. Naturally, I was as excited as any devoted viewer when Cartoon Network announced the “Summer of Steven” in which we’d get at least two weeks of nightly episodes, including a couple of 22 minute specials.

I brought that same enthusiasm into the 100th episode “Bismuth,” and after viewing it, I stepped back from my immediate reaction. It is now several weeks and a few episodes later and my feelings of profound dismay remain. It was a painful blow to watch “Bismuth,” which was a fine episode, but the problematic elements prevented it from being a truly great one.

The Story

Bismuth reunites with the Crystal Gems. © Cartoon Network

Bismuth reunites with the Crystal Gems. © Cartoon Network

On the surface, the episode tells a multifaceted story about a joyous reunion among long parted friends. It is the story of a war veteran discovering that many of her friends had lost their lives in the war she never got to see the end of. It is about the grief,  guilt, and rage in Bismuth from not being there to fight or fall with the Crystal Gems. It strongly illustrates post traumatic stress and places a bold underline beneath the saying “War Is Hell.” It is about trust and making new companions, but also about misunderstandings, broken friendships, distrust, and sad partings.

All of these topics are dealt with in the usual sensitivity by the Steven Universe team. No one person is ever just one thing and heroes are flawed, even the beloved and compassionate Rose Quartz. That the creative team gets so much right is why it’s a major shock to the system when they get things as astonishingly wrong as they did with this episode.

Race Coding in Gemkind

Steven Universe, for all the good it does with the racial coding, occasionally missteps, so this wasn’t the first time we’ve seen a race issue treated ham-handedly. The first time was the appearance of Sugilite, voiced by special guest Nicki Minaj. This fusion is not unearthly beautiful like Opal before her, Garnet, or Rainbow Quartz. Sugilite was an ugly, multi-eyed neanderthal-browed monstrous creature. She was ferocious and loved violence. She reveled so much in her strength that she looked for fights and refused to stand down. Her sense of “style” had elements of Garnet and Amethyst’s outfits, only shredded and ripped up haphazardly. Most of the other fusions have real, put-together outfits, but not Sugilite.

Sugilite © 2016 Cartoon Network

Sugilite © Cartoon Network

The ugly and rather unevolved appearance of Sugilite was explained as Garnet and Amethyst not being in sync with each other mentally, so the fusion manifests that way physically, with the less controlled qualities being amplified. Sugilite is messy, violent, and out of control to the point that Garnet thinks it’s a bad idea to fuse as her again. Sardonyx, which is the black-coded Garnet fused with the white-or-Asian-coded Pearl, is a “much cooler” character, more poised, with more self control, and who sneers “playfully” at Sugilite. She is tidy, fastidious, and a literal performer whose fusion outfit is a tuxedo of sorts, while Sugilite is the worst of Garnet and Amethyst (the Latina-coded character) magnified.

Sardonyx © Cartoon Network

Sardonyx © Cartoon Network

Garnet, in the episode that introduces Sardonyx, is treated like an appliance for Pearl so she can feel like the strong one and feel the sense of intimacy she’s lacked ever since Rose went away to birth Steven. The white-or-Asian-coded character gets to do whatever she wants to the black-coded character without even considering the consequences of using someone she calls a friend as well as someone she looks up to. Amethyst even backs Pearl up in her contention that fusion makes them feel stronger. The connotations of using a body coded as black for its strength are staggering in their insensitivity. The show’s implication that Rose Quartz rescued Pearl from literal slavery (the Pearl gems are created to serve) makes this even worse. We get to see Garnet’s sense of betrayal, so strong that it disrupts Garnet’s stable fusion and splits her into Ruby and Sapphire. For Pearl, there’s no remorse. Pearl comes off more sorry that Garnet is mad at her rather than realizing she’s committed a serious violation against someone she’s supposed to care about and respect. Pearl doesn’t seem to get that you don’t treat people that way no matter how lonely and bereft you feel.

Bismuth & Lapis Lazuli © Cartoon Network

Bismuth & Lapis Lazuli © Cartoon Network

As if these two fusions and their implications weren’t bad enough, the show introduces another black-coded character in the same ham-handed, ill-considered way.

Bismuth, the Crystal Gem introduced in the episode bearing her name, shares several black coded traits with Sugilite and Garnet. Garnet’s afro racially codes her as black. So do Bismuth’s dreadlocks. Like Garnet and Sugilite, Bismuth’s voice actress is a black woman, the incredible Uzo Aduba, who played the hell out of the role. To their credit, Bismuth was given some positive traits. She’s funny, open to new experiences, and generous; however, this doesn’t balance out the problems with the character.

When we see Bismuth form her body–from having been in a bubble since viewers first met Lion way back in season one–the first thing she does is take a fighting stance and keen eyed viewers will realize this may not be our first look at her. We saw someone who looks very much like Bismuth several episodes earlier, in a flashback from Lapis Lazuli in “Same Old World” as the gem who brutally attacked her from behind, hitting her hard enough to crack her gem. This illustrates her as ready to pick up a fight where she thinks it left off.

Bismuth © Cartoon Network

The show’s style seems to lean toward rather unfortunate features for some of their Black coded characters.

Bismuth is drawn as large and beefy to underscore her choice to be a blacksmith. From a queer standpoint, it’s a fine physique for a butch woman. From a feminist angle, it’s great for a woman to not have that wasp waist thin figure. Unfortunately, the choice of physique plus the same less evolved cast to Bismuth’s features displays a stunning failure to consider intersectionality. Garnet is coded black, but doesn’t look like Bismuth. Nonwhite characters, like the Pizzas, the Maheswarans, and Mr. Smiley, don’t either. Only Sugilite seems to bear a resemblance.

I have to believe that it was a  lack of mindful consideration. The presence of Ian Jones-Quartey and Lamar Abrams, who are black, did not seem to be enough to catch these terrible messages before they made it into the episode. The large body and those features paint a literal picture of “black woman as unfeminine” and “black person as subhuman” that is impossible to ignore and painful to see on a show that is usually much more respectful.

Real World Reflections of Race and Power

© Cartoon Network

Bismuth and the Ultimate Weapon. © Cartoon Network.

Bismuth and Sugilite aren’t the only victims of the show’s dicey attention to racial situations. Connie, who is otherwise treated respectfully, is submitted to brutal training by Pearl who teaches her to think “I am nothing.” Although Connie is coded South Asian, not black, it’s still problematic. As with Sardonyx, we see this treated as “Pearl’s issues cause her inability to see what harm she’s doing” rather than “the former slave treats someone else like they’re worthless.” There’s no indication whether slavery as we know it took place in the world of the show. But it’s troubling that a character who has experienced it first hand is oblivious to how she treats others.

Bismuth is full of deep-seated, seething hatred for the Homeworld Gems, who oppress any Gem who doesn’t follow their mandate to obey without question. This is a clear parallel to racial violence perpetrated on black people for centuries, dating from the colonial days of slavery up to the present. Bismuth has a right to her emotional response. Emotional responses are valid. We’ve seen how cruel the Homeworld Gems are, how brutal their response is to any rebellion, and how punitive and petty they are. Combine those factors, though, and you get another ugly picture. Bismuth is a big, loud, boisterous black woman enraged at her oppressors. She is willing to go to an unconscionable extreme in taking the fight back to those same oppressors.

Take into consideration how negatively black anger is portrayed by entertainment and news media through the angry, scary black man and the sassy black woman tropes. I’ve already mentioned elsewhere that “sassy” tends to be used in the context of when a black person rises up out of their place against white authority. Through “respectability politics,” black people have been told for centuries not to fight for our rights, not to demand them, but to gently and respectfully ask for them. This is a disingenuous dodge on the part of the existing power structure or institution who, when asked politely, can appear sympathetic and concerned but ultimately give lip service to change, all the while postponing it for “more immediate” concerns.

Through Lapis’ flashback, we see that the Diamond Authority–the Gem institutional power–is made up of sore losers who will sacrifice their own people in order to punish their enemies: The rebels. We’ve seen through Peridot that they don’t allow any backtalk, even when a servant has a genuine point. Bismuth sought to kill Rose for being unwilling to take the fight to the bad guys using the methods the Diamonds used (shattering their gems). She felt Rose valued the lives of the enemy over the lives of her friends and took this as a betrayal, as many people do when being told “don’t fight, ask nicely.” As a result, she was willing to kill Rose and Steven for finding her lethal solution one they couldn’t support. She perceived being bubbled as an indication that Rose didn’t care about her feelings. Her rage is still fresh from being bubbled after her fight with Rose (and unwittingly re-ignited by Steven), and rather than consider ways to talk her away from her extreme approach, the Crystal Gems just sadly accept that she’s too far gone. They put her away with all the other bubbled gems that they “can’t help.” Notably, this makes Bismuth the first and only bubbled Gem who isn’t a victim of the corruption the Diamonds caused–that we know of.

Gems are magic. Intent is not.

The numerous racial coding failures prove that racism can be so internalized that racist messages appear unconsciously. That none of the Crewniverse caught them indicates how entrenched into the psyche it is; no one thinks to look closely for it, so only obvious racism is caught and anything else slips by. This is how racism appears without anyone consciously choosing to perpetuate it.  

© Cartoon Network

Bismuth’s armory. © Cartoon Network.

For a brilliant blacksmith, Bismuth apparently never considered protecting her friends’ gems with armor. The Forge is full of weapons and only weapons. Bismuth talked a good game about protecting the Crystal Gems and liberating the oppressed gems from Homeworld, but the fact that there was nothing in her entire creative work was built for protection speaks volumes. More importantly, she doesn’t seem to be aware that as gemstones go, Diamonds are considered unbreakable. Her deadly device would work on Homeworld foot soldiers like Ruby, but stood a very good chance of failing against the Diamonds. (I’m aware of the reveal about Rose and Pink Diamond. It comes to us second hand from a biased source the team spent two episodes establishing as easily tricked). Her “solution” meant shattering gems who worked for the Diamonds without giving them a chance to change sides, an opportunity Bismuth herself was given.

Is she incapable of thinking things through because she’s coded black, or is she simply too full of wrath to think through her chosen solution and its consequences? Neither possibility is a good look, as they still come right back to those racial tropes.

By the end of the episode, this loud, angry black woman–with dreadlocks, animated with distinctly harsher features and an unfeminine physique as compared to the rest of the Crystal Gems, righteously angry at her oppressors, but whose methods are too extreme, and who willingly tars every Homeworld gem with the same brush (This is keeping in mind that Bismuth knows Ruby, Sapphire and Pearl were all Homeworld gems at one time)–has been written off as a lost cause! There’s no changing her mind, so no one bothers to try after Steven fails. They just put her away and accept that there’s nothing more they can do.

The Unkindest Cut

Yes, it is true in the lexicon of the show “bubbled gem” doesn’t mean dead and gone forever. Any Gem in that condition can come back. The original trio has all been “poofed” as Steven describes it, only to reform a new body later. The same has happened to Peridot, starting off her Heel Face turn as of “Catch and Release.” So while Bismuth can return, there’s a meta consideration that will have in-story effects. Uzo Aduba gave an incredibly poignant, nuanced performance with the role she was given and her return could become a budget issue like it was with Nicki Minaj. If Bismuth returns at all, she could very well, as it happened with Sugilite’s second appearance, be literally stripped of her voice.

The Crewniverse Issued Their Own Challenge

The team has proven, repeatedly, that they’re competent and capable of handling important issues in eleven to twenty-two minutes.  They have consistently been able to deal with complex issues in a respectful and thoughtful manner. That’s why their lack of foresight with Bismuth hits such a jarringly discordant note. They can do better. They have done better. It isn’t a dealbreaker, not for me, though it was for several fans of color. It was disillusioning to encounter a sensitive, emotionally-charged topic they didn’t treat with the same care. I will continue to watch and to call the team out when warranted. That’s the only way to help the show improve.

What Would Steven Do?

The show polarized the fandom into extreme re© Cartoon Networkactions over whether Rose was wrong or Bismuth was. The truth is neither of them was wholly right or entirely wrong. I urge devotees of the show to step back, as I did, from an instant reaction–whether it is to declare Steven Universe perfect and without fault, to defend Rebecca Sugar and her team against what may feel like an attack, or to insist that Bismuth’s episode had no racism because it wasn’t intended to have any.

I encourage fans to follow the example the show itself provides: Be compassionate. Reach inward and find  your empathy rather than your anger. Don’t dismiss things just because you dislike them or how they make you feel. The Crystal Gems learned they weren’t always right and their knowledge may not account for new information like in “Warp Tour” and have differed to Steven’s POV ever since. We viewers can take that lesson to heart.

The show has so many positive messages to share, and it is important to make sure that when they miss the mark, we speak up so they can get back on the right path.

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About Author

Jamie Kingston is a Native New Yorker, enduring a transplant to Atlanta. She’s a lifelong comic fan, having started at age 13 and never looked back, developing a decades-spanning collection and the need to call out the creators when she expects better of them. Her devotion extends to television, films, and books as well as the rare cosplay. She sates her need to create in a number of ways including being an active editor on the TV Tropes website, creating art and fan art, and working on her randomly updating autobiographical web comic, Orchid Coloured Glasses. As a woman of color, she considers it important to focus on diversity issues in the media. She received the Harpy Agenda micro-grant in November of 2015 for exceptional comics journalism by a writer of color.

17 Comments

  1. This is a very in-depth, well-written article and it’s definitely given me a lot of food for thought. There’s a couple things where I’m not sure if I’m on the same page as though, but the main one is why Pearl and Amethyst enjoy fusion with Garnet.

    When Amethyst and Pearl say they enjoy fusing with Garnet because it makes them feel stronger, it’s Garnet’s inner, emotional strength they refer to rather than her physical strength. Pearl and Amethyst both deal with a lot of insecurities, Pearl about Rose being gone and where that leaves her, and Amethyst with being kind of an outsider even among the other Crystal Gems.

    Gernet, on the other hand, is a stable fusion who’s been that way for millennia, and she is entirely at peace with herself, confident and secure in who and what she is. I think that this is even explicitly stated in one of the episodes in the Sardonyx arc, that the strength of Garnet’s balancing influence is what makes fusing with her so tempting for Pearl and Amethyst. When they’re fused as Sugilite or Sardonyx, Pearl and Amethyst’s insecurities are diminished by the strength of Garnet’s emotional foundation.

    Which isn’t to say that I disagree entirely with you on this point, but I feel like the specifically emotional component of that whole situation is very important to keep in mind.

    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents. Good article!

    • Jamie Kingston on

      You make an excellent point about Garnet’s emotional strength.

      I guess it doesn’t register like that for me because Pearl is so skittish/dubious about fusion in every other episode when she’s not the one fusing; and Amethyst’s reaction to fusing with Garnet was “bigger! Badder! Better!” and they both seem to feel like they are physically weak in comparison to Garnet as well.

      Pearl didn’t want to see Sugilite and tried to convince Garnet to fuse with her. When Garnet and Amethyst went for it anyway, she covered Steven’s eyes like it was something too obscene for a child to see. She didn’t react well to Stevonnie’s first appearance, nor to Smoky’s before becoming Sardonyx.

      Amethyst seemed to feel, in Sardonyx’s episode, that she’d let Garnet down by letting her reckless and wild spirit cause Sugilite to get out of control, so again, fair point.

      I have an admitted anti-Pearl bias, even when she does things that make me root for her (like punching Peridot in the face, and proudly saying she belongs to No One …even if that is technically a lil fib.)

      Thanks so much for taking the time to make this kind and thoughtful reply. I really appreciate it!

      • Thanks for taking the time to respond! You’re more than welcome, too!

        As for Pearl, I feel like her attitude towards fusion isn’t quite so negative. When Steven and Connie first fuse into Stevonnie, she seems more baffled that something like it is even possible at all. She does mention that she feels it might be inappropriate for gems to fuse with humans, but then again, Pearl feels uncomfortable with a lot of things humans do. With Smokey Quartz on the other hand she’s blown away initially but quite excited for them afterwards.

        I can’t really argue with you about her reaction to Sugilite, though. I personally feel like she’s trying to shield Steven from seeing too much of Sugilite’s wildness rather than her appearance or the act of fusion at all, but the effect of that and what it might represent, intentionally or no, is much the same as what you’ve written about in the article.

        Thanks again for replying to my reply! I also appreciate it very much, and I look forward to reading more!

  2. Jamie Kingston on

    I think you have a point about Pearl’s disdain for Sugilite. But take into account her sung lyrics from the same episode. “Can’t you see she’s out of control and overzealous // I’m telling you for your own good and not because I’m –”

    At the risk of being over explainy, That particular musical lyric progression usually indicates, IME, the singer is in denial about their true feelings since although they don’t sing the word aloud, the listener can hear where it belongs in the phrase. (See also “Slipping” from Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog)

    Rebecca’s storytelling is nuanced and continuity minded. Stuff that seems throwaway from earlier episodes turns out meaningful much later when viewed as a whole.

    This is why I found this episode so disappointing.

    • Oh, Pearl is absolutely also in denial about her own jealousy, yeah. I don’t regard these reasons as mutually exclusive, though. Still, yeah, I getcha.

  3. My main problem with thw episode is that Bismuth was basically introduced, given weapon upgrade, then shoved in a bubble for reasons. The writers could havr found a better reason to give them weapon upgrades without introducing a character that didn’t really bring anything to the show. They demonized gem killing in that episode that Amethyst had been kept in the dark, yet Garnet and Pearl had loving reunions and didn’t warn anyone. Yet not long after you find out that Rose had killed gems. Bismuth could have been a good leason, or learned a lesson. Instead she was just locked away as a lost cause while the beloved Rose was able to get away with it since she had a chance. It’s only someone on a tight deadline ir not thinking outside of the box that caused this to happen. It was dissonant and kind of thew me out of the series.

    • I dont think that Bismuth didn’t bring anything to the show besides giving the gems weapon upgrades. Introducing her and her story was an important step in settig up the fact that Rose wasn’t actually as perfect as people had been presenting her in the show. Furthermore, Pearl and Garnet had loving reunions with her because they never knew why Rose bubbled her, or that she’d bubbled her at all, since Rose kept her altercation with Bismuth secret, either to spare the others’ feelings or, what I think is more likely, because she couldn’t really face up to her own mistakes.

      It’s also not that strange that Pearl or Garnet never told Amethyst about Bismuth, because they originaly thought she’d ben killed or corrupted like the other gems on earth. They weren’t really expecting to ever see her again, and talking about the war still brings back bad memories for all of them. It makes sense that they wouldn’t bring her up to Amethyst, since Amethyst wouldn’t know to ask, and I doubt the others would have much desire to bring her and many of the other fallen gems up out of the blue.

      Bismuth is too big a character to never bring back, I feel. The show so consistently brings back even minor things to show their greater significance that someone like Bismuth is bound to return eventually. We’ve also already seen that the impact of meeting her and interacting with her and, ultimately, fighting her still plagues Steven, since she’s one of the major figures representing his sense of guilt in Mindful Education.

      So while I agree that there’s problems regarding nuance, coding and other things regarding Bismuth and her episodes, I feel like it would be extremely preemptive to start worrying that she’ll be discarded by the show, because of how uncharacteristic that is for the show in general, and because she clearly hasn’t been forgotten by the characters themselves.

      • Jamie Kingston on

        Bismuth is just the beginning of an arc, in my opinion. Nobody to date has showed up without having at least another appearance later. We already see Bismuth again (even if she’s just an hallucination) in “Mindful Education” so her presence is having ripple effect that still is affecting Steven even now.

        I believe that the reasons Rose didn’t mention Bismuth are multifaceted.

        * She felt she couldn’t get through to Bismuth quickly, and quickly is what was needed at the time because they were at war.
        * Had she allowed Bismuth to shatter /her/, Rose’s rebellion might’ve fallen apart at the seams, and Bismuth would have ended up basically alone trying to take down the Diamond Authority without backup.
        * Had Rose taken Bismuth in front of the entire Crystal Gem army, Bismuth’s idea, if presented to the other Crystal Gems, could have easily caused a schism that divided them all at a time they most needed to be united — which would’ve divided their forces and weakened them.
        * Bismuth, given time to rest and dream in the bubble (as Garnet has said that’s what happens to bubbled gems), might have eventually come around to relax her viewpoint.
        * Rose hoped that someone else might be able to get through to Bismuth where she could not.

        These are logical reasons she might have acted that way as both the general of an army and as someone who didn’t want to actually have to kill her friend. But we will see as the plot develops.

  4. Hi, if you wouldn’t mind, I would appreciate some clarification on this part of the article: “Unfortunately, the choice of physique plus the same less evolved cast to Bismuth’s features displays a stunning failure to consider intersectionality. Garnet is coded black, but doesn’t look like Bismuth. Nonwhite characters, like the Pizzas, the Maheswarans, and Mr. Smiley, don’t either. Only Sugilite seems to bear a resemblance.”

    If there are other non-white characters (black in particular) that don’t look like Bismuth, doesn’t that make her appearance less problematic, not more? If it’s about representation, isn’t it a good thing that the black characters come in a multitude of shapes and sizes? I don’t understand the above extract, it seems contradictory to me.

    • Jamie Kingston on

      Hello Jade,

      Thank you for asking.

      The resemblance between Sugilite and Bismuth is more problematic because they’re both used in lessons where black coded characters are portrayed as violence-loving and subhuman in appearance. The ones who are portrayed differently are portrayed as willing to think things out and deal with things in other ways.

      Does that help a little?

      • That definately clears some things, though I think it’s just a stylistic choice. Even Jasper maintained a large and intimidating appearance without a specific racial coding.

  5. This wasn’t a badly written article, I understand being disappointed in “Bismuth,” and there are good points, but…

    I don’t completely buy the racial coding of the characters, especially Amethyst being Hispanic.

    Amethyst and Pearl both used Garnet for fusion, but it was seemed more like for an emotional purpose than becoming intimate, especially Pearl. Pearl’s status is as a servant on Homeworld and she is without Rose Quartz who she continually put first. Pearl describes that fused with Garnet, she is “confident, secure and complete” (in “Friend Ship”). Fusion can be a parallel to different relationships, though Pearl doesn’t seem to describe it as physical. She also doesn’t get away with her actions, and Garnet even stated that she wouldn’t forgive Pearl because she had to learn that there are consequences (again, in “Friend Ship”).

    As for Amethyst, she was ecstatic to become “huge” by fusing with Garnet, but their personalities collide, which results in Sugilite’s monsterous appearance, much like Malachite, because Lapis Lazuli and Jasper were fighting for control. Even though Opal is more “attractive,” Amethyst and Pearl had difficulty fusing because of their personalities. Amethyst fusing with Garnet was more physical, though she is a defective Quartz soldier who was supposed to be broad shouldered and huge like Jasper and Rose Quartz. Amethyst lacks self-esteem, so I think fusing with Garnet was also a was to improve it. Neither action was right, I don’t find “racial coding” with how Garnet was taken advantage of.

  6. They’re rocks. They’re not anything-coded. They’re non-human beings that create a humanoid form for themselves. Please just… stop. Stop whining about every conceivable thing you can find to whine about.

    • Actually, Reid, my good friend and pal, these “crystal gems” are not rocks at all. In fact they are digitally produced areas of colour — areas of colour which, by way of the process known as “animation,” are perceived by the human eye and brain to Move. It’s quite incredible. Good comment!

    • “They’re rocks” does the Gems a disservice and it is disingenouous to use that as a dodge.

      The Crystal Gems are, in the universe and milieu of the show — people. On a meta level, they are drawn and written in such a way as to evoke certain ethnicities. That would be the coding you’re protesting.

      Your disagreement does not make the coding non-existent. Your preference to ignore the coding doesn’t mean the rest of us who have studied this sort of thing and understand it have to ignore it because it makes you uncomfortable.

  7. This was a great read. I agree with mostly everything said about Bismuth and Sugilite. Writing Bismuth as a black-coded radical whom Steven and Rose had to “rein-in” to “moral” behavior is definitely unfortunate, and it’s kind of exacerbated by the lack of information Steven and the viewer have about the gem war and the particulars of the conflict between Rose and Bismuth. Rose has always been characterized as this archetype of radicalism in gem culture. It was thus kind of a weird choice to use Bismuth as the foil required to bring Rose’s inner moderate into relief when we have no idea why Bismuth thought shattering gems was necessary but an intuitive understanding of why Rose would find it abhorrent (despite the show establishing that Rose would go to any [previously] conceivable lengths to win the rebellion), leaving the viewer the sense of “well if even Rose thought it was too much…”. I think Steven’s reaction to Bismuth made sense, insofar as he is a child confronted with an actual war veteran and former traitor to his mother, and is consequently cowed into bubbling her, but not actually being given much of Bismuth’s side of the issue leaves the viewer with “killing is wrong and Bismuth wants to kill, so Steven needs to be the conscientious one by restraining her”. Steven obviously isn’t literally playing at respectability politics and is just kind of terrified (a situation kind of problematic unto itself) but the viewer is left with the sense that Rose WAS playing at respectability politics and, moreover, was morally justified while doing so (especially since in the end, the rebellion was successful without Bismuth or the breaking point, although if Rose actually shattered Pink Diamond, maybe that would add some dimension to the treatment of Bismuth?).

    Regarding Pearl though I think “Sworn To The Sword” tried to depict Pearl’s training regimen for Connie as a combined product of Pearl’s deeply unresolved grief over the loss of Rose and of Pearl’s self-worth being founded on her role as Rose’s knight. On the one hand Pearl describes herself vicariously through her comments to Connie as “nothing” when she’s fighting for Rose (in comparison, presumably, to her love for Rose and everything she represents), but on the other hand Pearl says elsewhere that Rose made her feel like “everything”. So when Pearl tells Connie to think of herself as nothing on the battlefield, what she’s really trying to do is recreate the sense of security and resolve she had in her role as Rose’s martyr by imparting it to Connie, make Steven Rose’s avatar to finish recreating the dynamic, and experience it all again vicariously. Although during that episode I think you’re right in that it’s made pretty clear that Pearl is not even really thinking about Connie, at all.

    What it does reveal is that the sense of security Pearl felt with Rose was inextricably linked to a kind of self-diminution, maybe as a consequence of swapping out the Homeworld caste values which Pearl had internalized for Rose’s belief in self-determination. “Sworn To The Sword” has very little to actually do with Connie as far as characterization goes (except, maybe, as a comment on an anti-authoritarian streak and haste toward zealotry that she shares with Pearl), and Pearl’s advice to her about thinking of herself as “nothing” on the battlefield was not an attempt to damage Connie’s self-worth, but to use the relationship between Steven and Connie as a chance to reincarnate the old identity Pearl had as Rose’s eager-to-martyr knight, which Pearl, perhaps erroneously, sees as a glorious role to occupy.

    Maybe Pearl found a sense of agency in her role beside Rose and in Rose’s belief system that was historically denied to her, and erroneously concluded that it was Rose who afforded Pearl that agency and worth, rather than something that was always a fundamental part of her identity but that Homeworld had denied her the chance to actualize and explore. So Pearl valued herself insofar as she valued her liberation through Rose and the possibility of spreading and protecting Rose’s beliefs, but mistakook her value with the thing that allowed her the opportunity to explore it. At one point in the episode Connie says to Steven “You are everything, and I am nothing. But I can do this for you! I can give you my service.” which sounds to me like a direct echo of Pearl channeling her love of Rose through a non-existent sense of self-worth and servile self-identity inherited from Homeworld. Pearl diminishes herself into an instrumental extension of Rose’s beliefs because she loves the freedom those beliefs afforded her (and compared to her self-concept while on homeworld that diminution probably felt like a radical expansion) but still doesn’t understand herself to be intrinsically valuable. Perhaps there’s something to be said about a problematic analogue being drawn between Connie’s upbringing and Pearl’s origins, manifesting here in Connie’s suitability as an actor in Pearl’s play-rebellion, but I don’t think that Pearl telling Connie to consider herself worthless was meant to actually damage Connie’s existence, but to, from Pearl’s perspective, invigorate it.

    Maybe we don’t actually disagree, I just wanted to make the point that Pearl likely sees her time at Rose’s side as the most psychologically healthy and emotionally vital time of her life, even if it wasn’t actually very healthy or emotionally mature from a broader perspective, and was trying to impart that specific feeling of single-minded dedication to the possibility of self-determination to Connie, without understanding that there were remnants of homeworld’s values inextricably linked with that resolve in the form of a reactionary self-diminution produced by the sudden inversion of those values by Rose, as well perhaps as in the simple internalized remnants of a servile self-concept which Pearl has never given the introspection required to purge herself of. She’s in love with Rose at the expense of herself, because she sees Rose as emblematic of freedom and has only ever understood herself as servile.

    PS. I’d love to see more SU articles on this website! Maybe an analysis of the Lapis/Jasper or Amethyst/Jasper dynamic? I really enjoyed reading this after watching Bismuth.