First aired back in 2015 and released on a somewhat spotty schedule ever since, Steven Universe is a Cartoon Network series about a young boy named Steven with unusual powers. Steven has one human parent, as well as one parent who is a gem, a race of sentient alien space rock women who initially came to earth to mine it for resources. Steven lives with three friendly Earth-protecting gems named Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst, and works to protect the world and one day stand in his mother's footsteps.
The show — which deals with surprisingly adult themes for a kids' show, ones like emotional abuse and consent — is ostensibly the story of Steven growing and becoming more adept at using his magical healing and shielding powers, but arguably over the years it's more important has centered on a character who only exists in flashbacks and discussions: his mother Rose Quartz.
When Steven Universe starts, Rose Quartz is held up as an impossible standard of perfection for Steven to live up to. Rose is described as having led a rebellion to protect the Earth from invading gems, earning the love and respect of everyone who met her. She was beautiful, caring, intelligent, and nurturing to everyone she met. She knew how to bring the best out of people, and everyone she met was impacted by her presence.
As a gem, Rose Quartz couldn't have a child with her human partner in a traditional sense and ultimately had to give up her physical form for Steven to be born. As a result, Steven is placed up on a pedestal with expectations at his feet. He needs to become as powerful as his mother was, he's expected to know how to lead the way she did, and he's expected to answer for all her choices as if they were his own. All of this without ever having been able to meet her.
This shadow of perfection initially acts as his driving force to grow and develop. However, in a really brave move for a kids' show, Steven Universe actually spends a lot of time dismantling the myth of Rose as a perfect person, and ultimately presents her as a somewhat selfish, self-centered, and thoughtless leader who ran away from her problems and left them for others to pick up.
Spoilers lie ahead for Steven Universe. You've been warned.
One of Rose's most trusted companions on Earth was Pearl, her second-in-command and former servant. Pearl dedicated herself fully to supporting Rose during her rebellion, largely out or a romantic affection that Rose was aware of, and allowed to grow into dedication and loyalty without ever shutting down. Pearl felt like she was nothing without Rose in her life, an unhealthy power imbalance that Rose never addressed. Pearl was willing to die for Rose and would have thought nothing of it, considering it simply her duty.
As the show starts to introduce its primary antagonists, we hear more about Rose Quartz's role in the war that took place on Earth, not only in triggering the war but also in not ending it when she probably could have.
When gems who fought on the side of the gem homeworld come to Earth, they describe Rose Quartz as a murderous assassin who killed Pink Diamond, a member of the royal family, who then fled to Earth and never answered for her crimes. This in and of itself would have muddied her character, but the truth about her role in the war is actually a lot more complicated.
Rose Quartz was Pink Diamond. She liked the Earth enough that she wanted to protect it, but she was afraid to speak up to her royal counterparts. So she faked her own death and ran to Earth, presenting herself as the ultimate champion of the downtrodden, assassinating a royal and standing up to the rest for what was right. The whole time, she was that very royalty she was fighting. She caused the other diamonds to grieve her death, a war to be fought over her own faked assassination, rather than simply talking about her feelings properly.
She also left all these issues unresolved for Steven to handle. Steven was left to grow up being accused of war crimes left, right, and center without the right knowledge needed to protect himself. He had to stand trial for the assassination of a royal, never knowing that the crime never happened.
Rose Quartz also, several times, misled those closest to herself, hiding things from them and not trusting them to know the choices she was unilaterally making. A particularly striking example of this is when she imprisons Bismuth, a member of her team of rebels, over a disagreement about the right tactics to use in war. Rather than explaining to her fellow rebels what Bismuth wanted, why she disagreed, and why she felt the need to lock Bismuth away, she simply lies and tells everyone Bismuth went missing in combat. She is meant to see these other gems as her equals, her companions, her friends, but she continually shuts them out of decisions, feeling she knows best about how to handle situations, without any other input.
However, one of the saddest examples of Rose Quartz and her being revealed less and less as a sympathetic figure is in the recently released Steven Universe movie, and the way Rose treats the movie’s antagonist, Spinel.
Back when Rose Quartz was still known as Pink Diamond, before she was assigned her first colony, she was given Spinel as a wacky, lighthearted, silly jester friend to play with. The two were inseparable until talk of Pink Diamond getting her own colony came up. She was being given power, ownership of her own place, and being treated like a grown-up by the other diamonds. She felt there was no place left in her life for her friendship with Spinel.
Rather than talking to Spinel, explaining that she wanted different things from life and wasn’t going to be able to keep playing, she does something incredibly cruel. Recognizing Spinel’s level of devotion, she tells Spinel to play a game: Stand perfectly still in the garden, and wait for her to return. It might be a really long time, but just wait. Don’t come looking; she will definitely come back.
It was thousands of years before Spinell learned that Rose had moved on, lived a new life, made new friends, and even passed away, never to return. Spinel waited patiently for thousands of years because Rose knew she would do as she was asked. Rose had no use for Spinel, and rather than have a difficult conversation, simply left her problem behind to become someone else's problem. Again, Steven had to deal with a furious and powerful Spinel, understandably inconsolable and desiring of revenge or closure.
This all comes back to the way Rose treated Pearl. Rose can tell when people will do anything for her, and she uses that to her advantage. She runs from her problems, she doesn't have tough conversations, and she allows people's dedication to her to blind them to the fact that she's selfish and avoids conflict.
Rose Quartz's arc has been one of slowly dismantling someone initially presented as a little too perfect, and it has been fascinating to watch. She's certainly not universally despised by the show's characters; they can see her for the flawed person she was, and I would just love to see more shows dismantle their perfect characters the way Steven Universe has done here.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.