This post contains spoilers for Steven Universe: The Movie!!
I’ve been watching cartoons my whole life, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one quite like Steven Universe. Firstly, most of the characters, the alien species called Gems, are all non-binary women. Secondly, the protagonist, Steven, is a boy, whose role models are these awesome non-binary women. And thirdly, although the show is about aliens and magical powers and such, it also deals with real life problems that real kids experience that often go overlooked. There are many more things I could say about Steven Universe, but for today I’ll be focusing on Spinel, the antagonist in the recent movie, and how well the movie dealt with her trauma.
We see a lot of media portraying breakups of romantic relationships and how awful they are and how much work it takes to get over them. But what about when a friendship dissolves? What happens when one person moves on, leaving their former friend wondering what they did wrong? And what about toxic friendships? This is basically Spinel’s backstory, one that I’ve rarely seen in cartoons, and one I can really relate to. Basically, she was ghosted for 6,000 years, left alone in a floating garden in space, forgotten. Pretty understandable, then, that she wanted to take her anger out on someone, even if that meant trying to kill Steven and the Earth simultaneously. In this interview with Rebecca Sugar, the creator of Steven Universe, she calls Spinel “a really toxic person. She’s so toxic that she’s literally trying to poison people.” Indeed, in her debut scene, she flies an insidious giant vial filled with bright pink goop right into the middle of Steven’s happily ever after song. It was interesting to see an antagonist in this series attacking for revenge. Spinel is a villain uninterested in power, money, or just generally having things go her way. All she wanted was to make everyone else hurt as much as she did.
Even more interesting than Spinel’s motives was her road to recovery. There was no magical moment in the movie where all was made better, all of Spinel’s hurt and trauma wiped away. After learning what happened to her, Steven sings her a poignant song, telling her that someday she can love again, with someone who actually cares about her and won’t, you know, abandon her in a garden for 6,000 years. Just like in real life, where someone going through trauma like this might attach themselves to the first person to show them kindness, Spinel attaches herself to Steven, with disastrous results. Again, like in real life, just because someone’s kind to you and willing to be your friend, it doesn’t mean they can solve all your problems or take all your pain away.
In the ensuing fight, some excellent points are made. Spinel tells Steven he can’t make everything better by singing a stupid song, but ultimately she realizes he’s right; lashing out, hurting everyone just because she’s hurting, and expecting someone else to do the healing work for her isn’t going to help. She has the power to change how she she feels, and she needs to do the work be a better person and learn to trust others again.
The movie ends happily, perhaps a little too easily, but hey, it’s still a kids’ series, after all. Spinel is given another chance at love, and I hope the writers bring her back in the future so we can see how she’s doing. It would be nice to show this character’s true growth, rather than just end with her saying how she’ll have to do a lot of work to improve herself. I’ve seen lots of debate among fans, and it seems like Spinel is a character you either love or hate. But I think she’s important for what she represents: that even if you’ve been really hurt, love and growth are still waiting for you, if you put in the work to heal.