Pearl and Femininity in Steven Universe
Steven Universe is unlike any other cartoon or ‘kids’ TV show. Femininity shines as a foundational pillar of the characters, music and animation. It’s also become a beacon for LGBTQ teens and young adults. There is so much going on in this show, it’s overwhelming. So, due to the sheer volume of badass content in Steven Universe, this thesis will be divided into 5 parts. Each part will tackle an individual character, then the animation and music and how they work to construct powerful femininity.
Before entering semi-adulthood, the captivating Disney movies were my only acquaintance with ‘kids cartoons’. Now, as a 22-year-old, my enthusiasm for cartoons has not been dismantled. It’s certainly stronger than ever (see We only talk cartoons for evidence of obsession).
In the coming series, I have adopted the term legitimise to describe how I feel femininity is portrayed in the series. So, when you see that term, basically it’s saying the specific character is constructed to eliminate a basis for their behaviour to be pawned off as womanly hysteria or simply “being girly.”
Before we get stuck in, it’s best to point out that technically the Gems are not ‘female’. They are rocks. In their world, they are without a sex. However, for the purpose of the show, Rebecca Sugar refers to the gems by adopting the gender pronoun ‘she’ or ‘her’. Sugar adopts the gems persona as women, so they can act as a platform to portray femininity as powerful and authoritative and therefore legitimate.
In our society’s social construct, femininity is portrayed as weak, beautiful only for the sake of others and illegitimate. Female feelings are “sissy” or irrelevant or due to implied “crimson tide”. Steven Universe smashes the constrictive barrier female characters are typically forced into (the creators also bring power and compassionate to a boyhood coming of age story, but that’s for another essay).
How we talk, portray and view femininity affects how women are treated. If femininity has no power, authority or legitimate value, then neither do women. Art that depicts femininity as powerful, authoritative and legitimate is paving a future for powerful women, and for a society that respects women as complex individuals. Not simply a person who must conform to a certain expectation of emotional expression or physical appearance.
Quick look: Steven’s role models
Steven has a myriad of role models, who he regularly seeks advice from. The three gems; Pearl, Garnet and Amethyst, Connie and of course, his dad Greg. Sadie also makes an appearance. All these characters share feminine characteristics. I mean let’s be honest, Greg is certainly not a typical masculine figure. More on that later.
When it comes to Steven making decisions, he sets his moral compass to the three gems and to Greg. Each of these characters embody different characteristics of femininity. The very fact that each of these characters embody a variety of feminine traits is what gives feminine power and authority to the hero of the story. Throughout the series, I will deconstruct the different feminine nature of these characters.
For now, let’s look at how Pearl’s complex character portrays femininity as powerful, authoritative and legitimate.
Femininity and Pearl
Disclaimer: This analysis is 100% bias; Pearl is my absolute favourite character.
Emotional power and vulnerability
Pearl’s character is strong (in the real way!). Throughout the show, she grapples with complex emotions surrounding Steven and her relationship with Rose, his mum. How she handles the complicated love she felt for Rose, and now how to treat Steven – is extremely difficult and testing. The beauty of Pearl’s feminine character is in how the plot depicts her emotional journey. We see the hardship of Pearl’s journey through her displays of strength, honesty, sadness, vulnerability and insecurity. Steven plays witness to Pearl’s characters and learns to portray compassion and boost Pearl’s confidence. We see this particularly in season 1, episode 45: Rose’s Scabbard. In this episode Pearl’s insecurity is exposed and explored. When Steven attempts to comfort Pearl, she begins a monologue, explaining her current raw emotional state,
“Everything I ever did, I did for her. Now she’s gone, but I’m still here. Sometimes, I wonder if she can see me through your eyes. What would she think of me now?” – Rose Scabbard, Season 1, ep. 45.
She remembers the meaning and purpose Rose brought to her life. How she gave herself to Rose and how losing her has ripped apart her self-identity.
We witness Pearl feel the full pressure of these emotions as she cries and remembers her time with Rose.
Later in the series, Pearl comes to the climax of her emotional journey, where she tries to confront her own emotions. And it’s truly epic. I mean, who didn’t tear up massively in her It’s Over, Isn’t It Ballard. Listen here if you are emotionally prepared to relive the moment again!
“War and glory, reinvention, fusion, freedom, her attention. Out in daylight my potential, bold, precise, experimental. Who am I now in this world without her? Petty and dull with the nerve to doubt her. What does it matter, it’s already done. Now I’ve got to be there for her son. It’s Over, isn’t it?” – Mr Greg, Season 3, ep. 8, It’s Over, Isn’t it.
The scene is arguably one of the most powerfully emotional moments of the show and marks Pearl’s true emotional vulnerability. As viewers, watching this moment, we see a feminine character grappling with complex and authentic emotion. We are allowed to see Pearl’s character experience every facet of her complex feelings; exploring the vulnerability and self-awareness that comes with such an emotionally trying situation.
Through her character, we are positioned to fully understand her emotions, and therefore see them as legitimate.
Pearl’s knowledge and authority
“Humans just live short, boring, insignificant lives, so they make up stories to feel like they’re a part of something bigger. They want to blame all the world’s problems on some single enemy they can fight, instead of a complex network of interrelated forces beyond anyone’s control.” – Pearl, Keep Beach City Weird, season 1, episode 31.
Pearl’s authoritative femininity is not only portrayed through emotion but also through intelligence. In the crystal gem group, Pearl is cast as the uptight bookworm. However, she smashes this somewhat iffy trope, by proving that her intellectual abilities far exceed any of the other characters. In the scene quoted above,, we see Pearl breaking down the psychology behind Ronaldo’s wacky conspiracy theories. Her character is feminine and can develop her own original, intelligent thoughts. She then applies them to make sense of what’s happening around her.
We see her unique intelligence again when Greg and Steven want to build a spaceship for Pearl. They fail in a timely fashion, and Pearl is quick to the rescue;
“You need smooth, curving surfaces. Otherwise, you’re never gonna get enough speed to break Earth’s gravitational pull. Probably swept-back wings for supersonic flight, airtight cockpit with ejector seat, and we’ll need some serious engines, or maybe rockets would be better.” – Pearl, Space Race, season 1, ep. 28.
Again, Pearl’s character is moulded with intelligence and knowledge, and also has no fear of her own capability. Both Steven and Greg respect her intelligence without question, disabling the trope of the unbelievably “hot” scientist, whose capability is overlooked until she draws attention to her ability. In how her knowledge is positioned in her character and the show, she breaks the boundaries of traditional feminine characters portrayed in mainstream art and media.
Pearl’s complex emotions, her vulnerability and her authoritative intelligence tied in her with feminine attitudes, help legitimise the concept of femininity and women on screen. It creates a positive feminine internationalisation for young kids and adults when they witness femininity being celebrated, admired and most importantly exemplified as a legitimate identity. Pearl’s character works with Garnet, Amethyst and Greg to portray a powerful, authoritative and therefore legitimised voice of femininity.
So, that’s it for Pearl (for now), stay tuned for the next instalment in the series where Garnet takes centre stage!
Get to know the editor
Sean Bradley is the editor behind the scenes at Fatally Narrow. He is a true literature enthusiast and feminist comrade, who never fails to pick up on my misplaced commas.