For a long time I’ve been pondering the roles that mothers play in fiction, especially media aimed towards younger viewers. Sometimes nameless, occasionally silent, women who are either helpless, shrill, or too often dead before any story can begin. These aren’t always terrible roles for characters to play, given the right attention and nurturing they can even help flesh out a character over time or aid in providing the right weight to a situation; however, when it comes to mothers, this is rarely the case. Mothers, primarily biological ones, are there as fuel to burn the protagonist’s motivation while their own arc goes up in smoke. This is something that I feel Steven Universe successfully subverts and, for the most part, dodges quite well.
First and foremost, I know too many people out there who cannot stand their mothers. I don’t, and never will, seek to change their minds with my thoughts on the matter; their own reasons are wholly valid whatever they are. However, from a very personal standpoint, I cannot imagine my life without my own mum. I’m incredibly lucky to have grown up with her around. She never pushed me in the wrong direction, she always made sure that she was around when I needed her most, and it was clear that everything she did was out of love. She never shoved me into specific gender roles; it was always others that dragged me away from what I loved and into the dark pits of toxic masculinity. She encouraged my art from the very beginning, as she believes every parent should be their child’s “No. 1 Fan.” She was the kind of mum who never blamed me whenever I came home crying because of bullies; instead she’d even offer to beat them up for me after my sobbing died down. This is what I see so much of in Steven Universe that it makes my heart swell immensely.
In the show, the eponymous Steven has grown up surrounded by his father and the three Crystal Gems, Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst. His own mother, Rose Quartz, gave up her “physical form” to give birth to him, leaving her three best friends to look after and care for him. At first glance, this set-up would make me wary. Another dead mother, another bunch of stand-ins, and another boy who must be the chosen hero. Oddly enough, though, I appreciate what this allows to happen throughout most episodes, especially recent ones.
Most importantly, this is treated with a fair amount of heft and sometimes pathos in the series, rather than being accepted as some sort of status quo that’s left undiscussed and unexplored. The Crystal Gems progressively show how distraught they still are over Rose’s death and absence in their lives; she was their leader and their friend as well as confidante and the person who inspired them the most to be themselves. More and more, the show makes the audience realise just how big of a hole she left in her merry band of sentient-light-manipulating-rock-based-aliens.
As well as that, slowly Steven comes to learn more about the people of his home that is Beach City. He’s at first shown being on friendly terms with just a handful of folks, primarily another boy, Peedee, his age who only has his own father and older brother as company. Then the teenagers of Lars and Sadie, who run the local donut shop, are seen without really mentioning their own personal lives, including their family. Soon enough, though, more characters are introduced and more about their home lives are explored. Sadie’s mum makes her lunch every day, the Pizza twins, Kiki and Jenny, have their own father but also their offbeat yet delightful grandmother, and Sour Cream the DJ and his kid brother Onion’s mother Vidalia is shown to be a free spirit. Then you have Connie, Steven’s best friend, whose own mother is strict, responsible, and a bit over-protective.
It’s through these different lenses that both Steven and the audience are treated to a wide variety of women who have their own approaches to raising their children. Sadie’s mother Barbara loves her daughter, but her own eagerness can be a overbearing, yet it comes from her truly believing Sadie can do literally anything in the world. The Pizza twins’ grandmother of Nanefua may be a little spacey and diminutive, but she’s sharp and capable as well as one of the most perceptive people in Beach City. Vidalia’s own slightly-hands-off parenting initially seems a bit too carefree, but it’s shown that this allows her boys to express themselves in their own fashion, while giving her time to express herself and help others when they need her. Meanwhile Connie’s mother, Dr. Priyanka Maheswaran, is a strict authoritarian yet she opens up to her daughter soon enough and admits that she sets such harsh limits and rules because she’s not always around to be there for her. They’re imperfect, but not only are they shown to be capable, they make Steven appreciate what it means to have that sort of influence in one’s life, while also letting him realise how important his life with the Crystal Gems is.
At first he accepts everything they say and do at face value, however like any child he begins to doubt and rebuff them when obstacles arise that throw their motivations into a much different light. Pearl’s own neurotic nature and obsession with him still being a part of his mother has been demonstrated to be something that bothers Steven on occasion and has sometimes even put him in harm’s way. Garnet is playful and willing to spend more time with Steven, but she very visibly maintains her distance and she tends to divert any of his more probing inquiries. Amethyst also acts more like his friend, a sibling, than any sort of maternal figure, preferring to have fun rather than focus on any issue he might face.
The show doesn’t just let this rest on the surface level, though, as it pushes farther into why the Gems act this way, showing rather than telling, letting both Steven and the viewers digest these motivations more thoroughly. Pearl misses her friend and leader, hinting at unrequited feelings for Rose, and with Steven being the last remaining physical piece of her, it’s hard to both look away from and face him at times, which Steven learns to accept but also use to help comfort Pearl when she’s most vulnerable. Garnet also knows just how out of their depth the Gems are at raising a child. She’s making do as de facto head of the group and her having to play mum takes its toll every now and then, but Steven is able to prove himself capable enough to lighten her load and give her more of an outlet to be herself. Amethyst is also just trying to find her place in the world; she’s just as much of a kid to the other Gems as Steven is, and she finds common ground because of that, which at least gives him more of an equal to bounce off of rather than another walled-off parental figure.
Throughout all of this, Rose has a surprising amount of presence despite having been gone for quite some time before the first episode. It’s mostly through scattered remnants of her past that we get more glimpses of what kind of person she was, but they are such important pieces to a sizeable puzzle. Her trump card that she left behind is activated by a corny phrase that Greg, Steven’s human father, would always say to keep positive; her own secret armoury relies on Steven pulling funny faces and being tickled to reveal itself, plus the Crystal Gem weapon and powers of hers that are bequeathed to Steven are a shield, protective bubble, and the power to heal. So before even her first proper appearance outside of statues and paintings, we know how much of a fun-loving and caring person she was to all those around her. And her own final words she leaves to Steven stress the importance of life, and love, and beauty, not only in the world around him but also himself. It’s bittersweet, Steven is left with some wonderful lessons to live by as well as a patched-together family his mother trusted with her life, but he also mostly realises how important this all is when he’s exposed to other families and their own mothers, still alive and well. It doesn’t end there, though, because what I adore so much is how Steven then brings all of what he’s learnt to others, primarily those we see without mothers much like himself.
Peedee the fry cook’s son, Lars the arrogant teen, and Buck the mayor’s son are all exposed to more of Steven as the show progresses. At first, Peedee is a slightly morose kid; he’s depressed that he’s stuck working the lowest rung of the family business and that the joys of his toddler youth have waned in such a short amount of time. However, Steven encourages him, never stops trying to cheer him up, and helps him appreciate what he has, a family that loves him and wants him around, while also giving him the courage to demand for more from his dad.
Then you have Lars, bitter and incessant with projecting some amount of bravado constantly, a stereotypical teenaged boy who is only looking out for himself. It’s fairly obvious though that he’s incredibly self-conscious, clinging to the “Cool Kids” of Buck, Jenny, and Sour Cream, and embarrassed by Steven’s sunny disposition, even though everyone else enjoys it. It’s only after a near-death experience with moss that Steven makes Lars realise that even something that can be gross and off-putting has beauty inside waiting to bloom, when given the right nurture and care, while reminding him that he needs to see the value in himself before he can grow any further.
With Buck, smooth and detached while also cynical and deadpan, he readily accepts Steven as a counterbalance to his own perspective and attitude. However, he has his own issues with his father, constantly frustrated and put-off by his antics as the sycophant mayor of Beach City. He even takes this out on Steven’s dad, turning an earnest drawing Steven did of Greg into more of a meme to spread around town. It requires Steven doing the exact same thing to Buck for him to realise that it’s okay to be a fan of your parent, as much as they’re one of yours, and to not twist anyone else’s own earnest love, especially their art, against them for the sake of petty endeavours.
Frankly, I just love what Steven Universe does with mothers as a whole, both in their presence and absence. They’re skilled and capable without sacrificing their own individual personalities or succumbing to more masculine-coded attributes for the sake of making them strong. Most importantly, they feel like actual people, not just through quirks, but their own relatable motivations and beliefs. They love their children, and that’s what’s most important, and the show allows for them to further develop that love and these relationships as they develop more trust and sensitivity towards their children’s needs. They start as two-dimensional figures, but slowly begin to morph into more fully realised individuals who have their own imperfections to work on. All in all, through them this show has made me appreciate and love my mum so much more, and I can only hope others feel the same way.