In the sixteenth episode of the second season of Steven Universe, every molecule in my body hurts. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Steven Universe.
Trigger Warning: For talk of body horror, child abuse, general awfulness re: strict parents.
I almost feel like I need to write two reviews here: one about what a huge advancement this is for Connie Maheswaran and her mother, and another review about how this episode felt like it had been ripped out of my own childhood. The truth, though, is that the two are unmistakably tied together. Connie – with Steven’s help, I should note! – standing up to her mother is perhaps the most single rewarding moment for me as a viewer, and the only way I can explain that is to talk about why “Nightmare Hospital” is terrifyingly personal.
I have not been secretive about how much I dislike Dr. Maheswaran, both because of the writing choice to give the Asian parent qualities that ring a little too close to a stereotype for me, but also due to how similar she feels to my own mother. The show danced around addressing how toxic the environment was in Connie’s house, but I never felt satisfied. As someone who lived in a house with immutable rules – many of which my mother openly broke in front of me or allowed my younger sister to break – I lived in total fear of my parents. There is the REALEST fucking moment in the beginning of this episode: the sound of the garage door opening, which is like a death toll for people with strict parents. Your momentary freedom is about to end. Did you complete all the tasks lined up for you? Do you look innocent? Is anything out of place? Sometime, my mother would come home and I honestly had been working on school work the entire time, and she was still convinced that we had invited people over, or that we were plotting to leave the house, or that we’d called someone. There was never evidence of these things, and yet we’d still get punished for it.
By the time I got to high school, it was insufferable. I had a bedtime in high school. I wasn’t allowed to use a steak knife at the table. I could not go further than three houses away in my neighborhood at sixteen, unless I was walking to school.
My mom started monitoring cross country and track practice my freshman year. She would randomly drive by or drop-in, just to make sure I wasn’t enjoying myself in any way that wasn’t sanctioned by her. That may sound like an exaggeration, but one time, I got grounded because she saw me laughing while we did our cool down stretch, and she was convinced that I was trying to buy drugs.
She pulled me out of Speech competitions and Mock Trial because she believed my teacher was trying to sleep with me. Of course, there’s a tragic irony to this, given that she had no idea I was actually in the closet. Any extracurricular activity that risked me getting popular or may have taken me out of my mom’s control wasn’t allowed. I became known for signing up for clubs and groups – anything that might give me some freedom or joy – and then pulling out of them within the month. My mom was a familiar face around campus, too. Who knew when she’d show up to check in on my during the school day?
I don’t feel the need to go into explicit detail, but things went so much further than this. When she finally allowed me to get my first job at age 16 – working at the grocery store down the street – I never got through a shift without her there. She always conveniently shopped during all my shifts. One day, she saw me on my break, sitting outside the taco shop in the parking lot, and the few friends I had were there, the only ones who truly knew what was going on at home. She saw me talking to them, and the next day, she forced me to go back to work, with her at my side, and resign. I had to lie to my boss, tell him my school work was failing (when it wasn’t), and the whole time I wanted to die. I knew I could never escape this nightmare if I didn’t do something about it. A week later, during a particularly vicious argument in which my mother said a ton of hateful, abusive things, I left. I never went back.
I escaped the cycle of abuse and strict parenting by running away. So watching Connie’s confrontation was a power fantasy for me. It was what I wish I had done when I was younger. Of course, I didn’t have a friend like Steven. That’s not a criticism of the people I was friends with at the time; I had been isolated by my parents, so I wasn’t even allowed to maintain a friendship like Connie gets with Steven. Is there a bitterness to how I viewed “Nightmare Hospital”? Sure. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s hard not to feel bitter about having your childhood stolen away from you, and I’ve met a lot of people with strict or abusive (or both!) parents who feel similar towards positive depictions of families. And I view Dr. Maheswaran’s change as a very positive thing. She realized that she had created such an intense atmosphere of fear and loathing that her daughter had no choice but to lie to her. When your children fear you so much that they brace for every interaction with you, something is wrong.
My mother never admitted that to me, but I started tearing when Connie’s mother did. I couldn’t help it. That’s what I wanted. Not only that, but perhaps there’s a strict parent out there who watches Steven Universe with their child, and they sit through this. They get to see how detrimental their behavior is to the development of their kid, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll reconsider treating their child like a criminal suspect.
The video for “Nightmare Hospital” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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