By Bridget Keenan
“Steven Universe” is a show in which the main characters are a type of alien species called “Crystal Gems.” Gems get their life force from their gemstones, and are able to combine their bodies virtually at will. Sub-protagonist Garnet is not a single person, but the fusion of Ruby and Sapphire. She has one body and is treated like one person who is composed of two people. Recently, “Steven Universe” released an episode on how gems Ruby and Sapphire met each other.
It is impossible to understand Garnet’s relationship without understanding the implications of fusion. Fusion is the process of two gems combining their physical forms into one single body, made possible by the light makeup of their physical bodies. The fused set of gems is treated as a single person rather than two combined. This is creator Rebecca Sugar’s metaphor for a romantic relationship.
Garnet is literally the incarnation of Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship. Our first proper introduction to Ruby and Sapphire. Although gems technically lack gender, Ruby and Sapphire’s feminine coding does make them the first canon lesbian couple on Cartoon Network, or American television in general for that matter. There is no debate whatsoever that this decision was monumental. Gynophilic women cheered at the sudden presence of positive identity characters on public television.
I was genuinely excited when their relationship was revealed, and still overall view the presence of a lesbian couple on “Steven Universe” as a good thing. However, an analysis of their relationship dynamics reveals a lot of deeply problematic content.
Although we do have strong evidence that Ruby and Sapphire are a romantic couple, their relationship is unhealthy, unstable and controlling. Garnet spends so much time together that Steven had no idea of Ruby or Sapphire’s existence until he was 13 years old. They do not know what to do without their romantic relationship, even in the most minor of situations.
If they are free to leave each other at any time, then why are their un-fused identities such a major secret? If the line to abuse were crossed, no one would be able to tell. Ruby and Sapphire are completely unable to function without being fused. Both characters are completely controlled by their relationship to the point where they have no livelihood outside it.
Such a relationship could not function in real life without being severely detrimental to its component members. Ruby and Sapphire have no autonomy whatsoever. I am unable to believe that Ruby and Sapphire have really never wanted to unfuse. They lose the ability to function without each other. This is really a terrible thing to tell anyone pursuing a relationship, especially since abuse is so often classified by feelings of helplessness.
The idea of people, especially women, not being worth anything without a relationship is already prevalent enough in our culture. We do not need yet another example to prove this point. The other characters and creator both agree that neither Ruby nor Sapphire is worth introducing as an individual, let alone being treated as one.
As far as I can tell, this may be the creator’s portrayal of all long-term romantic relationships in which both partners are capable of fusion. However, this does not justify how unhealthy the idea of completely and permanently losing yourself to a relationship really is. It is especially terrifying that Garnet labels this relationship solely as “love” in the answer, rather than a way that is empowering to the viewer.
This is not a realistic or positive model of a romantic relationship, especially when geared at a specific sexual identity. “Steven Universe” boasts a large range of viewers, but neither children nor teenagers benefit from this portrayal of a relationship. A relationship solely defined as codependent, especially when both characters are in a compromised position, is not empowering the characters.
A relationship in which one person feels they cannot function without the other is both psychologically and socially classified as abusive, and shows poor understanding of healthy relationship dynamics. Even if it were true that perpetual fusion was a healthy and autonomous choice for both parties, the fact that it is so difficult for them to do so discredits this as a valid explanation for their action.
Although the positive effects of having a lesbian-coded couple as a lead character are definitely felt, it is also vitally important to acknowledge that Garnet is a problematic relationship.
We need to stop idolizing Garnet. The fusion has empowering aspects, but otherwise is not an empowering relationship. “Steven Universe” is doing its viewers a disservice by presenting a toxic couple as role models, and this unhealthy dynamic should definitely be discussed in future episodes.