Hello! Welcome to Aaron’s Steven Universe Guide, a series of essays where I plan to go through every single episode of Steven Universe, one of the best shows on television, and look at each one from a critical perspective. I love Steven Universe a lot, so much so that I recently started showing it to my new roommate who had never seen it. Rewatching the series from the beginning has been fascinating to say the least, and I’ve been having trouble finding the words to express to my roommate why I find it so fascinating. I’ve nearly always expressed myself better in writing, and I have SO MANY THOUGHTS about EVERY SINGLE EPISODE of this show, so here we are. I cannot promise these will be regular, but they will always be passionate.
I intend for these to be critical — and like when I write theater criticism, I will not be shy about when I love something. But I would also like to take some unflinching looks at Steven Universe’s flaws, which no piece of art is free of. I’d also like to take a look at the show’s tremendous social impact — SU is arguably the most progressive TV show of all time, and I’d like to celebrate that. At the same time, as it bravely forages into untrod territory in terms of representation, it understandably makes some missteps along the way, which we will also be covering as we go along.
I will also be writing these without spoilers, so that you can read them as you watch the series for the first time. I will occasionally discuss foreshadowing, but I will try my best to avoid context as much as possible when that happens.
For now, let’s start with Season 1, Episode 1, “Gem Glow.”
We zoom in on a lazy beach town, and then into the eating establishment The Big Donut. Our story begins in media res, as a young boy in a pink shirt named Steven discovers that his favorite dessert, Cookie Cat, has been discontinued, and is justifiably heartbroken. The two teenage employees on duty are Lars and Sadie. Lars makes fun of Steven and points out Steven’s “magic bellybutton,” and Steven reveals for the first time the round, pink gem where his navel should be. Sadie is more empathetic, and lets Steven take the Cookie-Cat-branded mini-freezer home.
Steven walks home to his residence, a cozy beachside house which seems to be embedded in the front of an ancient, mysterious temple in the shape of a large, many-limbed woman. Inside, he stumbles upon his three guardians; Amethyst, Pearl, and Garnet. They are fighting several green-ish, insectoid monsters, called “centipeetles.” As the three gems defeat the centipeetles, Steven discovers that they (the gems, not the centipeetles) have bought a bunch of Cookie Cat desserts and stored them in the freezer, making him understandably overjoyed. Upon eating one, Steven’s gem glows pink, sparking excitement, but the glow soon fades.
Steven is saddened, and asks the gems to teach him how to summon a weapon from his gem. Each of the trio has a short session with him, attempting to explain how to do so with their unique perspectives and personalities, and each summons a weapon from her respective gem. Pearl’s gem is on her forehead; she summons a spear. Amethyst’s gem is on her chest (one could argue, near her heart); she summons a whip. Garnet has two gems, one on each palm, and summons gauntlets.
After some false starts, Steven finally manages to summon his weapon, a shield, while eating a Cookie Cat. This leads him to the conclusion that he can only summon his shield if he eats ice cream. Therefore, when the mother centipeetle attacks the house, Steven charges into battle armed with nothing but a freezer full of Cookie Cats, with predictably disastrous results. Thankfully, Steven is nonetheless able to help the gems subdue and defeat the centipeetle, which turns into a small green sphere. Garnet “bubbles” the sphere, and the gems comfort Steven, assuring him he’ll get better at summoning his weapon someday.
One of the things I enjoy most about Steven Universe is the way that, over the course of the surprisingly long first season, it slowly reveals tidbits of information to the audience. This makes the worldbuilding feel natural and grounds the story in Steven’s perspective. “Gem Glow” has an outwardly goofy and childlike tone, like many early episodes, which can turn off prospective adult viewers and indeed turned me off a little on my first time through the series. Overall, it’s more interesting to re-watch than watch, given that it contains some lovely subtle foreshadowing of future reveals. Without spoilers:
LARS: Tough bits, man. Nobody buys [Cookie Cats] anymore. Guess they couldn’t compete with Lion Lickers.
STEVEN: Not Lion Lickers! Nobody likes them!
STEVEN: *rapping the Cookie Cat commercial song* He’s a frozen treat with an all new taste! / And he came to this planet from outer space! / A refugee from an interstellar war! / And now he’s at your local grocery store!
But beyond that, this episode immediately establishes some interesting paradigms.
First, that Steven lives not with his biological parents, but with three seemingly non-human warrior ladies who live in a magic temple and battle monsters on the regular. The fact that they are seemingly all co-parenting him suggests that, even if the Crystal Gems are not yet explicitly queer, there is certainly some queer coding going on.
Next, that Steven seems to have perhaps an unhealthy relationship with food; he develops an extreme emotional attachment to a dessert, and when he suspects the dessert is the key to his magic power, he force-feeds himself a great deal of it, to comedic effect. As a fellow dessert addict with unhealthy habits around food myself, I can certainly empathize. Where it gets troubling is how the episode portrays Steven’s weight. Several visual gags are based around Steven’s ample stomach surrounding his gem, and basing the plot of the first episode directly around sugary food and Steven’s overconsumption seems just a tad fat-phobic, especially as the joke seems to be at Steven’s expense. This contributes to the misconception that fat people have inherently worse food habits than thinner people, which is not only untrue and unsubstantiated, but perpetuates harmful prejudices. Now, if you’ve watched the series, you know that I will eventually have to revisit this particular criticism, as the portrayal of different body types on Steven Universe goes through many different and thoughtful iterations; we’re definitely going to come back to this point.
Lastly, more so than in the non-canon series pilot, “Gem Glow” gives us a small glimpse at the personalities of each of our three main Gem characters. Pearl is graceful, precise, affectionate, articulate, and exudes Mom Energy. Amethyst is more down-to-Earth; she is the only gem we see in a human environment, namely the Big Donut. We also see her messily eating a donut while there, indicating that like Steven she enjoys the earthly pleasure of eating — and her “chill out” attitude towards weapon-summoning establishes her as a more Cool Big Sister to Steven than a parental figure. Garnet, meanwhile, is powerful and inscrutable, and though she speaks affectionately to Steven, it’s clear he finds her just a little intimidating. Importantly, none of the Gems’ personalities are fully formed yet. We are seeing them as Steven currently sees them, and as many of us see our parents when we are young; as powerful, awesome, otherworldly beings.
The final point concerns the actual mechanism by which Steven summons his shield, which is emotion. Although it goes unmentioned, Steven’s gem only glows in this episode when he is happy. The first time, it is because he is relieved at getting his favorite dessert back — and the second time, when the shield appears, it is because the gems are comforting him and giving him encouragement. That both moments occur during ice cream consumption is incidental. The fact that Steven’s powers are tied to his emotions is incredibly important, but we can’t talk about it much yet.
Overall, I think it’s safe to say that kids might enjoy this particular episode more than adults might. One of the fascinating things about Season 1 is how it starts off as a bog-standard adventure show for kids, and then slowly strips away layers to get at complicated adult issues. As such, seeing as I am writing these guides mostly for adults, many early episodes will garner a SKIP stamp from me, indicating that if you are trying to get to the really good, meaty material, you might want to skip this one. But while I don’t find “Gem Glow” particularly engaging on an emotional level, I don’t think it merits a SKIP given all the important groundwork it lays. And I think that starting on a later episode would be a bit disorienting. I like “Gem Glow,” but I also think it’s more necessary than it is enjoyable, if that makes sense.