In the twentieth and twenty-first episode of the third season of Steven Universe, Steven awakens an old gem with disastrous consequences. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Steven Universe.
Trigger Warning: For extensive talk of anti-blackness and misogynior, ableism (in regards to body size), Nazism, genocide.
I can see what the writers were trying to do, but this mess of an episode betrays the very kind of redemptive catharsis offered to many other characters in favor of… what? Because that’s the one thing I keep coming back to as I think about “Bismuth.”
Why wasn’t she allowed to grow?
This episode comes at a particularly relevant time in my country’s political landscape. I’m writing this review on January 25th, and Americans have spent over a week discussing whether or not it is moral to punch a Nazi. Never mind that we spent the latter parts of a war killing them, as we should have done. And never mind that we live in a world where neo-Nazis have rebranded themselves, built a national platform, helped install a neo-fascist Cheeto demon as president, and now are decrying anyone reacting to them. Apparently, if we punch a Nazi, we are just as bad as them.
Steven utters a line that’s remarkably similar to this in the Forge, and it was pretty much at that point where I was ready to jump ship on “Bismuth.” Things only got worse, and I’ll talk about that, but I have to address this.
Punching Nazis does not put us on the same level as them. It’s an absurd argument that’s both ahistorical and insulting, namely because it assumes that power dynamics don’t exist. That there’s not an inherent violence in the beliefs of a people who want to exterminate large swaths of humanity. That Nazis are just stating things and doing nothing else. I’ve been told this past week that I’m a terrible person for wanting to punch someone who I disagree with, and my response is always the same. I want to punch them because they want to legislate my death. That is an entirely different thing.
And that nuance – that vital, important nuance – is absent here. Steven tells Bismuth that if she shatters a gem in defense of her life and the life of her friends and allies, then she is just as bad as the Homeworld gems.
Bullshit. Is Bismuth invading other planets, eradicating them of life, and establishing a colonial empire? Is she murdering anyone who dares to live a life different than the role assigned to them at birth? No? Then her actions carry a different weight, a different meaning. Is she supposed to let the Homeworld gems murder her in order to maintain some sort of moral purity? How does that help the world? Herself? Her friends? How can she ever enact change if she is dead?
I know it’s going to be a hassle to talk about race and this show, and I’m certain I’m not alone in this sort of critical analysis. I’ve avoided all discussion of it, and yet I have no fantasy about what transpired. This feels so obvious to me that I’m concerned that no one thought through the implications of Bismuth. At the end of the day, she’s a Black character. She’s coded that way, from her hair to her voice, and it is inescapable. Thus, it feels particularly insidious in this political climate that a character encoded with traits associated with blackness would be the one written as an over-aggressive black woman prone to violence. Whether it was intended or not, it invokes a nasty trope we see often in narratives built around black women. And let me take it a step further: she’s also a black woman who is large and more “butch” than the other gems, and thus far, there haven’t been hardly any gems who aren’t feminine painted as the heroes. SO THERE’S THAT, TOO.
This characterization is exacerbated by another reality: other characters were offered sympathy. There’s an easy fix to “Bismuth” that is completely abandoned once Steven thrusts Rose’s sword through her and bubbles her: SHOW HER THAT THE WORLD IS CHANGED AND THAT THERE ARE NEW WAYS TO FIGHT THE HOMEWORLD GEMS. Do exactly what was done with Lapis and Peridot! Both those characters had complicated and violent introductions into the world of Steven Universe. And both of them were given sympathy; empathy; a chance to change. Steven and the Gems gradually eased them into the world.
That’s not the case with Bismuth. Once she tries to convince Steven that her war-winning weapon should be utilized again, the show inches towards a peaceful resolution, and then denies Bismuth the same freedom other characters got. Why? Why is Bismuth’s ideology so terrible that she deserves to be bubbled again? Even worse, this decision puts the episode’s focus on Bismuth’s beliefs instead of the bigger tragedy: ROSE QUARTZ BUBBLED BISMUTH FOR 5,300 YEARS AND NEVER TOLD HER FRIENDS WHAT HAPPENED TO HER. If you want to talk about violence committed against someone just because they disagree with them, THERE’S YOUR FUCKING EXAMPLE. Rose did it! Yet “Bismuth” spends relatively little time addressing this utter cruelty and more time making sure that this White Liberal™ fantasy plays out before.
And make no mistake: that’s honestly what this feels like. It feels like the people who told me that I shouldn’t protest police brutality because what would the world be without police? What about the good cops? It feels like people yammering about on Twitter and Facebook about the sheer tragedy of punching Nazis without realizing that their actions are inherently validating Nazi ideas as worthy of discussion. It feels like the sheer racist irony of asking people not to punch Nazis, but staying quiet as black and brown people are murdered by cops all the fucking time in this world.
Stop making false equivalences, especially with topics as important than this. I wanted to like this episode because BISMUTH IS SUCH A GREAT CHARACTER, and watching her interact with Garnet and Pearl was lovely. But the politics of “Bismuth” are gross and insulting, and I honestly feel like this is the first time this show has truly disappointed me.
The video for “Bismuth” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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