Or: Why I’m not impressed with how the Crystal Gems or Steven treat each other.
(Note: Although I’ve been spoiled about most of the plot to the series right up to the most recent episodes, this post attempts to approximate, as best as I can, the perspective of someone watching on January 22, 2015, the day this episode aired. To aid in maintaining this perspective in future posts any discussion of this post in places I would be privy to should avoid any events depicted or things revealed past this point. You can also read my original tweets while watching this episode.)
I bet you thought I was going to post on one of the three previous episodes if I was going to post by this point at all.
So back in Cheeseburger Backpack, the third episode of the series, I thought it was odd that the Gems took it so well that Steven didn’t bring the one thing he was supposed to bring and so doomed the spire to be swallowed up by the sea. I knew they were trying to make Steven feel better but I expected them to have more of a reaction to the loss of such a huge “gem cultural landmark” regardless. I was willing to accept that there may have been some reason for them not to care as much about the spire as they let on, but nonetheless I got pissed when we got the explanation in this episode: the gems outright lied to Steven about the importance of the spire, and the whole mission was more of a test of Steven’s ability and worthiness to carry out missions with the Gems than actually important in its own right. Steven, bless his heart, is more concerned about the fact he failed the test than that the Gems lied to him as part of it, and demands to be given a new test, a harder test, so he can prove his worthiness for real.
Steven manages to make it most of the way through the three rooms set up by each of the Gems, but towards the end braces for impact instead of running as a shaft of teeth comes falling down to crush him… and stops short of doing so, despite crashing onto the floor if no part of his body is under it. Going back through the rooms he finds that the course the Gems had hyped up as being so difficult was ultimately impossible to fail, with no way for anything to harm him. Ultimately ending up outside the course entirely, Steven overhears the Gems talking with each other about how the test’s real goal is to give him an easy success to boost his confidence, because he’s come so far but still worries about how much he belongs and seemed to lose enough confidence in House Guest that his healing powers seemed to stop working. Steven marches back through the course to its end and lets the Gems believe he made it through the course legitimately and never found out how it was rigged. The Gems hug him, say how proud they are of him, star out, roll credits. Happy ending!
Except Steven can’t un-learn what he learned about the course and can’t convince himself otherwise just for the sake of the Gems (or even himself). Success is meaningless for a test that cannot be failed. In the absence of an actual failure state, failure consists of forcing the facade of an actual challenge to reveal itself, and if I were Steven, that would mean in my mind I failed. The Gems didn’t even bother to do anything to track his progress through the course; they set up the whole thing just to give an artificial boost to his self-esteem. It’s essentially the equivalent of a participation trophy, except with the expectation that it actually is valued the same as an actual victory. Obviously, I don’t mean to imply that the Gems should have risked Steven’s life for the sake of a test, but if this were Star Trek or some other show for adults the triggering of the failsafe would result in the holodeck shutting down and indicating Steven’s failure. Obviously the Gems don’t want to give him that sort of negative feedback, so what they should have done is given him a test that can be failed, but which they have every reason to believe he won’t fail.
The Gems admit they don’t really know what they’re doing as parental figures for Steven, don’t actually know what it is he needs, and I don’t blame them for that. Considering their lifespan, it’s not clear parenting is much of a thing in gem culture anyway, and the Gems have been put in an unprecedented position of raising a half-human with likely significant differences in psychology from a normal gem. That would be a tall order for even the best parents in the universe (no pun intended). I give them credit for trying, because actually wanting what’s best for your child is more than half the battle, and imperfect parents who are actually trying to do what’s right are far superior to parents who abuse their children or otherwise neglect their development. What I have a problem with is Steven deciding the best thing to do in the face of the Gems’ lies is to lie right back to them for the sake of their feelings at the expense of his own development, the thing the Gems want to advance in the first place.
Given that he’s met a grand total of six non-corrupted gems so far (counting Rose Quartz and assuming Peridot isn’t the gem equivalent of an android or something), the level of contact he has with his dad, and the implication that he’s aged similarly to a human being to this point and could do so indefinitely if his mental state leads to it, it’s fair to say that Steven is far closer to a human mentally than a gem. The Gems may know what’s best for him as a superhero and a gem, but Greg would know better than them what’s best for him as a person. But while no one really knows what’s best for him overall, it’s likely that no one knows better than Steven himself. Steven should be helping the gems help himself become everything they want him to be and that he wants himself to be.
This is not to say, of course, that kids know better than their parents what’s best for them and should be taking the lead on their own development; among other things, that’s a recipe for kids to be raised on nothing but sugar and be spoiled with everything they ask for. Parents do need to do things their kids won’t like for their own good. Even in this case, I’m not sure giving Steven a new “test” was the best approach at all even as he was asking for one. But the stereotype of the teenager who yells at their parents that they “don’t understand!” and locking themselves in their room is something that’s best resolved by trying to make them understand, to have them listen and listen in return. Steven is not a teenager – he might be a “tweener” which would technically put him in his teenage years but which wouldn’t make him fit the stereotype of a “teenager” – but he’s gone through more than enough for a lifetime and has been forced to “grow up” faster than most kids could ever dream of, even if he still manages to maintain his mindset of youth.
The fact the Crystal Gems are selfless enough to care so much about him and his development means that in order to give them what they want and need, Steven needs to be selfish enough to be aware of what he wants and needs, and help them to provide it to him. Instead he gets the message that he should do the same thing and lie to them for the sake of their feelings, even though both lies arguably ended up being counterproductive and prevented the recipients from learning and developing in the way the liars intended (or should have intended). This is the first time Steven’s tendency to care for everyone he comes across has been presented, whether the writers intended it to or not, as an actual flaw that can be taken too far like Garnet’s deference to his instincts when it comes to anything involving non-corrupted gems – freeing Lapis from the mirror and helping her escape Earth may or may not have been a mistake, but Steven didn’t have and still doesn’t have the information needed to know that – and it’s with the Crystal Gems themselves.
I don’t want to be an adult that puts words in the mouth of a kid that makes them sound like an adult, and maybe I’m inserting my own Aspergian desire for everything to be orderly and straightforward, with everything being exactly as it seems with no misdirection. Nonetheless, what I would have had him say is that he knows what they did, he understands why they did it, he appreciates that he’s come a long way since Cheeseburger Backpack and would probably be a lot more responsible now, but that ultimately whatever “success” he had at that test feels hollow, and what he really wants and needs is a task with an actual risk of failure (but with little to no risk of death in the event of failure), or at least something with measurable standards of success so even if he’s not completely successful at it he can have tangible evidence of how far he’s come (or even how far he will come in the future) and put what happened in Cheeseburger Backpack behind him for good. Alternately, maybe he could even realize that, just as the Crystal Gems aren’t perfect all the time and are just trying to do the best they can with the seemingly impossible task of raising him, so he never really needed another big, singular, successful “test” to prove himself and put Cheeseburger Backpack behind him; he just needs to prove himself a little more with every mission he contributes constructively to and every time he gets better with his powers. After all, he has come a long way since then, and it’s not even clear his healing powers are even on the fritz so much as they just don’t work on a non-living thing like the geode. For all Steven knows, even figuring out the test was rigged would impress the Gems.
Either way, the Gems are lucky that Steven is so forgiving. I don’t know that I would be a particularly good parent myself, but one thing I do know is that I would not lie to my children if I could help it. I would try to give as much of a rational explanation as they could understand for any of my actions if they wanted. Nor would I want my children to pretend that one of my parenting tactics is having the desired effect when it’s not. A parent does not need to pretend they have all the answers all the time, but to outright lie to their children, to provide answers they don’t really have or to obfuscate the reasons for their actions, is an exploitation and a betrayal of their trust. From the Crystal Gems’ perspective this was a relatively harmless lie to boost up Steven’s self-esteem, but it only worked so long as Steven didn’t see through it; once he did it risked obviating the effect they intended it to have and should have given him reason to wonder what else they’ve been lying to him about “for his own good”.
Steven has no illusions that his parents are perfect people who always know better than him – witness his reaction to finding out Greg’s leg had healed after all in House Guest – and he at least knows enough to trust his senses even when the Gems are telling him they’re wrong, as in Mirror Gem and Warp Tour. He even spun a whole story in Garnet’s Universe that, while on the surface was about Garnet being awesome, had the fairly explicit lesson that he wants Garnet to tell him she loves him as much as she makes it obvious with her actions. But he still gives a level of deference to the Gems that they have proven they don’t deserve.
I never got to see Steven questioning the Gems in the aftermath of Mirror Gem and Ocean Gem like I wanted, but the plot of the succeeding episodes carried themselves along enough that it’s not until recent episodes that the lack of answers truly became frustrating. He’s completely incurious about why the Gems were so anxious to get the mirror away from him, whether Lapis had more of a reason to say not to trust them than just being trapped in the mirror for so long, or why they seemingly so desperately want other gems not to arrive on Earth. He knows they’re willing to lie to him, both for what they think is his own sake but which ends up undermining it when he discovers the lie, and to try and keep a gem imprisoned whether they realize it or not. The Gems may be increasingly willing to embrace him as a valued member of the team, but they still don’t trust him to even know enough about other gems to know why he shouldn’t rescue one even from glorified slavery, they don’t trust what he says he sees when they don’t like the implications of it, and they don’t trust him to pass a test to affirm his worth to them unless there’s literally no chance of failure. What they do trust him to do is not to ask “follow-up questions” that would expose any of these things. One of these days their distrust is going to cost them – not necessarily because Steven doesn’t trust them, but because he trusts them even when they don’t deserve it.