After saving the Earth multiple times, learning the truth about his mother’s past, and bringing peace to the Gem homeworld, Steven Universe is finally being forced to confront the kinds of personal demons that he’s never really had the time to in the past. The experience is proving to be the most difficult challenge he’s ever faced and Gizmodo recently had a chance to speak to creator Rebecca Sugar about it.
After years of following the other Crystal Gems’ leads when dealing with existential threats, Steven’s come into his own as both a leader and teacher. But as things have settled down on Earth, it’s become increasingly clear that for all the discovery and self-actualisation he’s done alongside Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, Steven still doesn’t have the most solid understanding of who he is as an individual.
Steven Universe Future has been heavily telegraphing Steven’s internal struggle pretty much from the jump, but the gravity of the situation really came to a head in “Together Forever” and “Growing Pains,” two episodes that encapsulate experiences Sugar went through and wanted to use to shape Steven’s story.
When I spoke with the series creator recently by phone, she explained how the rash decisions Steven’s made lately and his newly manifested powers are intertwined and reflective of the kinds of trauma that linger with people. Healing from that trauma, Sugar explained, is an ongoing process that takes time and openness, something that Steven himself still has to learn.
Pulliam-Moore: We have talk about “Together Forever” and Steven proposing to Connie. I don’t think the proposal will come as a huge shock to people?
Rebecca Sugar: [laughing] I mean, he loves weddings.
Pulliam-Moore: They’re very on-brand for him. But I do think that Ruby and Sapphire’s enthusiasm for the proposal was genuinely surprising. I wanted to talk to you about the thought process behind having the two of them being so gung-ho in their own ways but also having Garnet then acknowledge after the fact that the two halves of her are…extra when it comes to love. Talk to me about your thought process in deconstructing a marriage proposal and having it go wildly awry.
Sugar: Yes! Well, that was all character-based. In the room, we really had to sit down and say, “Well, what? What does Steven want for his future?” It was a bit of a puzzle as much for us as it is for him as a character, but in the end, we all thought, well, he’s gonna want to get married. That would definitely be his dream—he loves weddings and he loves love.
But also, we were just looking at the state he was in, and we knew that with Connie having so much figured out and with Steven not really spending that time to figure out what he wants, that disappearing into their relationship would be really appealing to Steven. A lot of his behaviour in Future is not unlike his mother’s behaviour before him.
Pulliam-Moore: He’s like Pink that way.
Sugar: He is, but again, he’s being himself. Garnet is fairly pragmatic as a character, but Ruby and Sapphire individually—Ruby is extremely impulsive and very, very excitable. The idea was that Ruby would really not have the kind of perspective that would allow her to know why Connie wouldn’t want to necessarily immediately say yes, because Ruby’s a complete romantic. Hopelessly so.
Sapphire, on the other hand, she used to be a fatalist, and while she’s able to see the future, she can only see a single path, and it’s a future where she does nothing. The important thing to understand about Ruby and Sapphire is actually reflected in how Garnet’s powers work.
Sapphire’s future vision works because she’s completely passive, and while Ruby can’t see the future, she’s extremely spontaneous, and that spontaneity and impulsivity alter the tracks of her life all the time. Garnet’s future vision shows multiple paths and they’re paths where she’s being proactive. Even if Sapphire can see a single track where something happens that she can’t control, she knows because of her relationship with Ruby that that’s not necessarily true. She could see a future where whatever it is goes wrong, but her experience with Ruby has told her that love alters fate.
To Sapphire, it doesn’t matter if Garnet as a person is an impossibility. Experience has shown her that love changes fate, and she thinks that Steven’s proposal can work. Ruby, not being able to see any future at all individually, thinks that anything is possible if she rushes into it with enthusiasm because it’s been true for her, so she’s just excited at the idea of Steven doing the same thing. When the two of them come together as Garnet, she’s able to see multiple possibilities that are being shaped by her actions, but this is getting so technical I don’t know if it’s helpful—
Pulliam-Moore: No, no, no, as you’re saying all of this all this, I literally have two follow-up questions that are very specific and power-based, and I wasn’t actually sure that I wanted to ask them, but now, I definitely do.
Sugar: OK! What are you wondering?
Pulliam-Moore: So, I’m curious as to what the pink glow is exactly. Because it’s not…it’s his Pinkness is coming out, but then you also have…is it density? Is it weight? There’s that scene in “Together Forever” where he’s devastated and he just crashes into the sand, and you see that “oomf” fall, which we’ve seen at other points to the series. What is that?
Sugar: Oh, sure. Well, we say it very specifically in “Growing Pains” that what he’s experiencing is the Gem equivalent of cortisol. At this point, Steven’s been in so many life-threatening situations that his gem is responding as if his life is in danger.
Pulliam-Moore: Right, right, right, right.
Sugar: It’s making him stronger. It’s making [him] faster. It’s making him heavier. It’s making him whatever he needs to be to get out of a life-threatening situation. The problem is that he’s not in a life-threatening situation, but his body has learned to react that way. His gem has learned to react that way so that is what’s happening when he is turning pink, that reaction is his life-saving instinct.
Pulliam-Moore: I have that line here, it’s like, “How do I live life if it always feels like I’m about to die?” and I wasn’t expecting to hear such a clear articulation of like, what living with PTSD and living in a constant traumatic state can feel like. What were the elements about Steven’s overall headspace that you really wanted to illustrate over the arc of Future?
Sugar: I was very inspired by the book The Deepest Well by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, which I had read a little bit ago. I was really surprised by the way that that book describes the experience of toxic stress, and it resonated with me in terms of experiences that I had had, not as a child, but in my early 20s. When I was 22, I was assaulted and I got away, but I began to experience something that I couldn’t understand after it had happened.
Because I had escaped, I thought that nothing had happened, but I began to have trouble with my peripheral vision and I felt like I couldn’t see what was going on around me. Even something as simple as going to the movie theatre was so overwhelming. Just the sound and size of the screen would leave me feeling dizzy. I didn’t want to be inside it. I didn’t want to be outside. I would have trouble breathing—
Pulliam-Moore: Was it a hyper-awareness or—
Sugar: Honestly, I know now that it was panic, but then I couldn’t understand what it was. It continued through my initial moving to California when I got the Adventure Time job, and it eventually subsided, I think because I was just physically away from where it happened. But partway into showrunning Steven Universe, a lot of whatever that was began to resurface.
Pulliam-Moore: Why do you think that is?
Sugar: I had never dealt with it. I’d never seen a therapist about it. I still believed that nothing had happened and I couldn’t connect all the dots in my head. It just did not occur to me even though the panic attacks began basically the next day after I was assaulted. Dealing with this through the show, I was always keeping it really under wraps and trying to keep things very professional at work and that created a different kind of pressure for me that I wanted to talk about and work into the story we were telling.
“Stronger Than You” as a song was inspired by that experience, and then it ultimately led to “Here Comes a Thought,” which was linked to my learning to stop having panic attacks. I wrote it to walk me through how to calm down.
Between that experience and also reading this book, one of the things that I learned that I found so interesting was that the flooding of cortisol and the experience of toxic stress could take regular social interactions and make the body respond in a similar way to the fight or flight mode or to a starvation mode that someone might go into because their life is in danger. This seems so benign, but the book described how in a breakup you might eat ice cream on the couch and not go out. It’s often played off as a bit of a joke, but the truth is that your body thinks it’s going to starve.
Pulliam-Moore: And so it’s trying to nourish itself.
Sugar: Yeah. Your body is reacting in a very, very ancient way to a feeling that is extremely severe. I thought that that was fascinating, and I recognised that in some of my reactions, and I wanted to figure out a way to express that though some of the metaphorical language that we built up on the show and the heightened reality that we get to work with on the show.