Friday, April 1, 2016

On Steven and Lapis

WARNING: The following contains spoilers to Seasons 1 & 2 of Steven Universe, as well as speculation on future episodes.

One of the things that makes Steven Universe such a fantastic show, and by far the quality which I believe makes it so accessible to older viewers as well as younger ones, is the tremendous attention that Rebecca Sugar and her creative team pay to detail. There is often as much told through hidden clues and undercurrents as as there is through the overt narrative.

It's a story with multiple layers. Some of these will only be apparent to older viewers, such as the sexual undercurrents between various characters (Greg and Amethyst, Pearl and Rose Quartz, etc.), or the fact that Sour Cream may or may not have been conceived in the back of Greg's van. Others reveal themselves only upon multiple viewings, like the following line from Steven in The Return that pretty much predicted Peridot's arc in the second season:

No detail in a show like Steven Universe should ever be written off as inconsequential, because you never know what might be important later, and often times what's happening below the surface is as important as what takes center stage. That's what makes the show great. In a word:

Now a quick clarification before we begin, yes this what you might call a fan theory about the relationship between two characters, and yes part of it is going to be speculation on what might be romantic undertones therein. That being said, I'm not trying to "ship" these two characters per se. Not that I have a problem with shipping in general, but let's be honest, Steven is a 14 year old with the body of a 9 year old, and Lapis is an alien being that's thousands of years old. Any idea of something sexual between the two of them now is entirely creepy. This post isn't going to be about how great a couple I think they will make one day either, or anything subjective like personal chemistry. This is specifically about what I believe are contextual clues throughout the narrative that the writers may be planting as breadcrumbs to something of significance happening between the two eventually.

While Steven Universe does play around a lot with sexuality, I'm going to be keeping this as PG as humanly possible. That being said, we are going to be discussing sexual undercurrents as used as a plot device, so young'uns, ye be warned.

Beach Summer Fun Buddies

Lapis's introduction in the episodes Mirror Gem and Ocean gem is a pivotal moment in the series. It represents a turning point, both for the viewers and for Steven himself as we find out that there are other humanoid gems out there besides the Crystal Gems, and that not all of them are nice. This shift is symbolized at the end of the previous episode, An Indirect Kiss, when Connie removes the no longer needed pink lenses from her glasses and goes about wearing the empty frames (no longer seeing the world through rose-colored glasses).

One of the first things that Steven does after receiving the mirror (which contained Lapis's gem) from Pearl, is to go show it to Lars and Sadie. As they are all talking, Lars and Sadie each go on about their desire to find a romantic interest for the summer (Lars to be sleazy and Sadie to make Lars jealous). With his typical obliviousness to the sexual aspects of the conversation, Steven refers to it as a "Beach Summer Fun Buddy" (a play on the phrase "summer love" perhaps?) and leaves the two to argue, speculating that perhaps the mirror would guide him to his own BSFB.

It's shortly after this that Lapis (through the mirror) starts talking to Steven, and he refers to her (it) as his Beach Summer Fun Buddy. When the Gems find out that the mirror is talking to Steven and try to take it away from him, Steven (accidentally) slaps Garnet in the face and yells "No! It wants to be with me!" Before running out of the house and out onto the beach with the mirror.

This scene is significant for a number of reasons:
  • Steven refers to the mirror as his Beach Summer Fun Buddy, a phrase that had previously (albeit unknowingly) been coined based on a reference to Lars's sexual aspirations.
  • This is the first time we really see Steven rebel against the Gems (his parental figures).
  • The phrasing "it wants to be with me" has romantic connotations, especially when taken with the context of adolescent love and rebellion.

Once Steven is out on the beach we see him choose his Beach Summer Fun Buddy over the Gems when he decides to free Lapis rather than surrendering the mirror to be bubbled. Again this parallels the puppy love trope where teenagers will choose a new infatuation over their parents or family. A theme which is continued when Lapis tries to take Steven "home" with her into the ocean, saying "They won't let us leave together" (a play on the phrase "They won't let us be together"). The first of the two Lapis episodes ends, in the typical style of teenage love stories, with Steven being grounded for his actions.

Healing Lapis and Sexual Undertones

Now by far this is the section where I most expect to be called a pervert. I'll just begin by reiterating what I said earlier, that subtext is a tremendous part of the storytelling in Steven Universe. Oftentimes this takes the form of sexual innuendo, like Garnet's half of the fusion dance that forms Sugilite, or Amethyst's reference to having "seen Greg's junk" in the episode Maximum Capacity. Children's show or not, sexuality his big part of the storytelling here, and it's used to convey a number of messages, from LGBT acceptance to positive body image. And sometimes, it's used to convey something about two characters without overtly stating it, as I believe is the case when Steven heals Lapis in the following scene:

Watching this scene, there are a number of things that I'd like to focus on. First off, I found it to be somewhat suggestive that we never actually see Steven's hand touch her gem. Not that I'm suggesting that Steven did anything other than apply his healing spit to her cracked gem, but the camera work is reminiscent of the way that sexual (or violent) scenes were often depicted in the cartoon shows of the 90s and early 2000s (which Rebecca Sugar came up on and often plays Tarantino-esque homages to). We see Steven move his hand, and then the camera cuts to Lapis's reaction. Now compare that to this scene from Justice League. It was a common way of getting around censorship rules to convey something that only older audiences were ready for back in the day.

The general awkwardness of the scene is also reminiscent of the way that young, first time lovers interact. When Steven offers to heal her, Lapis is unsure of what she's supposed to do. She turns around to expose her gem for Steven, and in doing so also exposes the knot that holds her dress together. When she does this Steven acts abashed and rubs the back of his head uncomfortably. Their mannerisms could just as easily be applied to two teenagers in a hayloft, or in the back of an Oldsmobile parked above some starlit overlook. The fact that they're literally sitting above the entire world with the stars all around them also makes the scene seem pretty romantic.

Continuing along with the "young lovers" analogy, Steven's healing of Lapis is, like many a first time experience with physical intimacy, overly brief. Once it's finished (and not to be too gross, but the animation of her wings emerging is also pretty suggestive) the scene is presented in such a way as to be deliberately uncomfortable. Steven makes a joke that falls flat, and his eyes shift away from her face as if he's uncomfortable looking her in the eye. Lapis then flies off, departing Steven with nothing more than a brief "okay... bye." Such an abrupt departure seems strange, given the lengths that Lapis is willing to go to later to warn and protect Steven from Peridot and Jasper. I believe that it's meant to be uncomfortable, as two people can often be after a first intimate encounter, especially if one of them is inexperienced.

Do it for Him, That is to Say...

Moving on to something a little less PG-13, there are a number of parallels drawn throughout Season 2 and the latter parts of Season 1 that seem to foreshadow something deeper than friendship transpiring between Steven and Lapis. Most of these center around Steven's own parents.

The romance between Greg Universe and Rose Quartz set the stage for the majority of the series. Literally, their union produced the show's titular character. As such, a number of important plot points are linked to Rose Quartz, and to her relationship with Greg. Over the course of the show we're given the details of how they came together in bits and pieces. The above song, from the episode We Need to Talk, shows us a number of things. This was the episode where it was established that Greg and Rose first fall in love, emotionally "fusing" as Garnet described it. We also see the resentment that was brewing between Peal and Greg over the relationship, but the importance of this scene for our present purpose is in the repeated phrase "what can I do for you."

This is very similar phrasing to a song that Peal sings later when she's teaching Connie how to fight in the episode Sword to Sword.

Pearl's infatuation and loyalty to Rose Quartz has been well established throughout the series, and towards the end of this episode she breaks down and screams at Steven, accidentally calling him by his mother's name:

Later, in the episode Chille Tid, Lapis shouts the same thing at Steven while he pleads with her to tell him where she is so that the Gems can free her from Malachite:

Lapis's dedication to Steven is pretty clear throughout the series. We see here that she's even willing to trap herself at the bottom of the ocean with Jasper to protect him, despite having spent (presumably) thousands of years trapped inside of a mirror, and then once again spending time locked in a cell aboard Peridot's ship after her return to Homeworld. The fact that she uses the same phrasing as Pearl may be significant, as Pearl clearly harbors a more intimate infatuation with Rose Quartz than merely that of her "knight" and confidant.

This scene is actually only one of a number of clues in that episode that I believe are significant. The first time that Lapis shows up it's in one of Steven's dreams where she takes the place of Connie. Steven, in the dream, is expecting Connie to come pick him up for "the prom." When there's a knock on the door, presumably from Connie, Steven opens it to find Lapis standing there instead. This isn't the first time that a parallel is drawn between the way that Steven sees Lapis and Connie throughout the series, but more on that later.

The second time that Steven has a dream about Lapis, he wakes to see Pearl projecting images from her own dream out of her gem. In the dream Pearl tells Rose how wonderful it is just the two of them, without Greg around to get between them. The central image (left) from the dream is also a reference to one of the most iconic scenes from the movie Titanic, which tells the story of two people from different social castes that meet and fall in love, only for one of them to slip beneath the ocean and drown (at the time that this scene happens, Lapis is trapped beneath the ocean in Malachite). At the end of the movie, the female lead stands on the edge of a ship and drops a large blue gem called "The Heart of the Ocean" over the edge to slip beneath the waves.

What's important to remember when examining parallels between Pearl and Lapis, is that Steven and Rose have a more complex relation to one another than a normal mother and son. Steven has Rose's gem in his belly, the same place where she had it before she gave up her physical form. Pearl refers to a gem's physical form as an illusion. Gems are, to quote Yoda, ethereal beings. Garnet refers to them as being made of light, not flesh. The gem in Steven's stomach isn't just Rose's gem, it is Rose. And since he is half gem as well, that means that at least half of him is Rose as well. We see this referred to by Rose and Jasper, and eventually Steven tells the "cool kids" that he might be his own mother.

This is important to keep in mind when we go on to discuss what the future might hold for Steven and Lapis, and how his own journey mirrors that of his mother's.

Greg and Connie

Before we move on to the parallels between Steven and Rose, however, I want to take a moment to look at Lapis through the two humans in Steven's life, because the contrast between gem and human mentalities is an important part of the series.

In the episode Ocean Gem, Greg sees the pillar that Lapis makes of the ocean and says that it gave him an idea for an album cover. We eventually see the cover in the episode The Message, where he writes a song about her called "Water Witch." Steven takes issue with Greg's interpretation, saying that Lapis was only misunderstood. This continues the theme of all Steven's parental figures disliking Lapis while Steven defends her. Again, this hearkens back to the trope of adolescent love and the way that it often comes into conflict with the authority figures of a teenager's life. 

"I don't want you around that blue girl anymore, she's no good."

"Daaad, you just don't understand her!"

You get the idea.

In response to Greg's misinterpretation of Lapis, Steven writes his own song about her and about their friendship together:

Again, I think that this song is suggestive of something more than just friendship, in particular the final line where Steven sings that she "came around to me." It's also worth noting that one of the first things that Greg does after meeting Rose Quartz is to write a song about her.

Things start to get interesting as well when you examine the scenes where Lapis and Connie are both in Steven's mind at the same time. Oh, and before we move on, let's make it clear that Connie is Steven's girlfriend. They refer to each other as friends, but that's more U.S. sensibilities regarding children's shows than anything else. It's the same way that Rose Quartz says she wants to "play" with Greg, when it's pretty clear that they intend on doing a lot more than that. Steven is 14 years old and Connie is almost 13, kids date at that age and that's what they're doing.

The first thing that Connie says when she and Steven ride up to Lapis's ocean pillar together is "That's some magical destiny stuff right there." Steven's mysterious destiny is something that's constantly brought up by the Crystal Gems, though often without elaboration. During the ensuing battle, Steven and Connie try to fight Steven's water clone together, which almost kills them both. I've always found this fairly shocking, considering what Lapis is willing to do to protect him later, but this is also before Steven heals her.

When Lapis later sacrifices herself to protect Steven, fusing with Jasper and then using her powers to drag them both to the bottom of the ocean, Steven shortly thereafter gets a phone call from Connie. Connie is hysterical on the other end after getting a message from Steven that they all might die, and she's shouting at him to find out what's going on, but Steven ignores her and only looks sadly down at the waves lapping at his feet. It's a small scene, easily dismissed, but in show that pays as much attention to detail as Steven Universe, no detail should be overlooked. It's later in this episode that Steven tries to break up with Connie, but ultimately can't go through with it.

Finally, there was the previously discussed scene in Chille Tid, where Steven is waiting for Connie to come get him for the prom, only to open the door and find Lapis waiting for him instead. Throughout the scene Steven dreaming about what his life would be like if his family were human rather than aliens. Each of the crystal gems shows up in a human form, and Steven is on his way to the school prom (he has never actually attended school in real life). It's when the door opens and he sees Lapis that the normalcy of the dream is shattered, and Steven's alien life is brought center stage again. I think that this is tremendously important when we examine the direction that Steven's life is taking him. But before we look into Steven's future, we must first examine his past...

Rose Quartz

I'm of the firm belief that Rose is the key to understanding Steven's journey. In many ways his journey parallels hers, which makes sense because in a way he is her. Consider the extended opening that was aired at SDCC in advance of the Season 2 premiere:

Look at the change that we see Steven going through over the course of the video. He and the Gems are running along the beach, with Steven lagging behind. While this is happening we see a montage of Steven unlocking his gem powers, fusing with Connie, calling out Rose's shield, etc. and then he pulls ahead of the others. And then when each of the Crystal Gems sings about their reasons for fighting, Steven's is to grow into his mother's shoes. Observe, also, how some of the same scenes differ here from the first opening, Steven now smoothly warping with the other Gems instead of tumbling, him smiling when they ruffle his hair instead of scowling.

Rebecca Sugar has described Steven Universe as a coming of age story. The show is about Steven growing up and coming into his destiny, and thus far his growth has marked, not by the typical milestones of adolescence, but by him coming into his powers as a gem and learning to control these alien abilities. The duality of Steven's nature as part gem part human is one of the primary sources of conflict and growth throughout the series. Nobody, not even the Crystal Gems, knows what Steven can do, how he will grow, or what he will ultimately be capable of. As such, his character growth moves in tandem with him developing the gem side of his being.

Now contrast this with the journey of Rose Quartz, whose arc, as we understand it thus far, is about a gem giving up her alien nature and embracing humanity. When Rose gives up her physical form to become half of Steven, she in turn becomes human (or part human) herself. Consider what we know about Rose and the way that she viewed humanity, and you'll see that Steven's most prominent attributes are likely those that his mother saw in the human race as a whole. He's kind, and open minded, and he wants to be friends with everybody, though he's also ignorant of the universe around him, and he's disproportionately childlike for his age.

Steven's journey is the reverse parallel of Rose's. While Rose gave up her life as a gem to create human life, embracing humanity over her own alien existence, Steven is progressing further from his human side with every milestone that he reaches. Or, when viewing the two as a single entity, one could say that Steven's story is part of a larger arc, that of the Rose Quartz Gem and how it's journey is now coming full circle.

So What Does This Mean? (Beware Sailor, Here be Conjecture)

Thus far Lapis Lazuli has played a comparatively small part in the series, but has a tremendous fan following nonetheless. I refuse to believe that this is just Boba Fett syndrome. To believe that is to do Rebecca Sugar and the rest of the brilliant creative team that brings Steven Universe to life a great disservice. Look at the detail that has thus far gone into her character, the fact that her animation flows, almost like water when she walks. And not only is she the most powerful single gem that we've seen on Earth thus far, but she also has a knack for showing up at many of the more significant events in the series. If you look closely, she was even there when Ruby and Sapphire fused for the first time. Lapis's character is meant for something important, some role of significance in the series, and that role is sure as hell not fusion and chill at the bottom of the ocean.

And while we're on that topic, what was the point of her fusing with Jasper at all? Why not just trap Jasper in the ocean by herself? Or why not let Garnet poof and bubble her, as she seemed to have no problem dealing with Jasper back on the ship? How does creating an absurdly powerful and potentially hostile fusion do anything to keep Steven safe? The only conceivable reason that I can see in Lapis fusing with Jasper is to keep her character in limbo until the show is ready to bring her back. But for what purpose?

For one, looking back on the "Let me do this for you" parallel, I could see Lapis playing the Pearl to Steven's Rose. She's already shown a tremendous deal of dedication to Steven. She was willing to sacrifice herself to keep him safe, and even betray her Homeworld in the end. Like Rose Quartz, if Steven's destiny is to love a human (Connie), then Lapis may play the part of his confidant as Pearl did to Rose. Though, if you think that there was nothing romantic between Rose and Pearl, you haven't been paying attention...

However, I don't think that this will be the case necessarily. While there is a certain degree of poetry in Lapis being Steven's "knight," I don't think that Connie will wind up playing the role of Greg. Frankly I would be kind of disappointed if a show like Steven Universe, which seems to pride itself on defying conventions, has its protagonist ultimately wind up with his very first love interest. This was disappointing when it happened with Ross and Rachel as far back as Friends, and it's been an annoying and predictable cliche ever since. Greg and Rose admitted to having other lovers before they met each other, and I somehow doubt that Steven's first love will be his last love.

And even more than this, I think that it would fly in the face of the path that all of Steven's character development has taken him down thus far. Steven is becoming more gem-like as the series goes on, embracing his alien side. So what does this mean for Lapis and Connie?

Let's go back for a moment to the scenes where Lapis and Connie share space in Steven's mindscape, and think about what each might represent in the context of his journey. If Connie represents a sort of grounding force for Steven, a tether to his human half, as I believe she does, then it stands to reason that Lapis might represent the antithesis of this. In other words, I believe that Lapis represents Steven's gem side, drawing him progressively further away from his human half.

The first time that Steven meets Lapis, it's immediately after he heals Connie's vision, both unlocking a new gem ability, and removing the "rose colored lenses" from Connie's eyes. When the two of them are alone together, Lapis tells Steven that his family doesn't care about the gem species, and that she never believed in the Earth. The next time that Steven and Lapis come face to face after that, he also comes into contact with Peridot and Jasper, the the first two "bad" gems that we meet in the series. Again, we see Steven moving further away from his human half, as he tries to break things off with Connie when dealing with the fallout from this incident.

My own personal theory (and this is pure speculation on my part), is that the romantic undertones between Steven and Lapis may become more apparent as he comes to further embrace his alien nature, unlocking more of his latent gem abilities. Steven is 14 years old currently, and Cartoon Network already renewed the show through three more seasons. The issue of him being a teenager trapped inside of a 9 year old's body has already been addressed (again, through romantic connotations, this time with Connie). The more the show progresses, the more he will mature mentally, and I believe that this will eventually manifest through his physical form. I would be surprised if the "coming of age story" of Steven Universe completes its run without Steven ever physically growing up.

I think that Lapis represents Steven's alien half, the part of himself that he's been growing into since he came to live with the Crystal Gems. In the same way that he moved away from his human father to embrace his alien family, I think that so too will he and Connie eventually drift apart, and as this happens, Lapis will loom larger in his life as a presence. Do I think that the two of them will eventually be "together" in that way? I don't know. As I said from the beginning, I'm not here to "ship" anybody. But I think that the future does hold something in store for Steven Universe and Lapis Lazuli. Whether this is romance, fusion, friendship, or something else remains to be seen. For the time being, we'll just have to keep watching.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You wrote "Rose and Sapphire fusing" instead of Ruby, great read though I've always had this view point of lapis being another love interest

    1. Good eye. I just fixed that, thanks for catching it.

  3. Great analysis. I wonder if a Lapis x Steven fusion would be named by Gem Rules (It's Opal not Permethyst) or Stevanni rules (Stapis? Laven?)

  4. This is quite concise. I'm impressed by the amount of work you put into presenting this concept. Steven Universe truly is a great work with many different levels of interpretation, so I really enjoy reading theories likes these.

  5. Quite an insightful read! Theories like this give me hope for the future of the show, especially at times of crises like the hiatus happening the moment this post's been conceived.