A childhood friend’s mother, dead from cancer since we were teenagers, smiles at me from the front door of an unfamiliar house. “It’s good to see you,” she says. “You’ve let go of all your protective camouflage from back then, especially that fake hair.” With the clarity that comes in dreams I understand she refers to things I did subconsciously as a child to protect myself from a wrath I often saw unleashed upon others. “Yeah, well…” I scuff my shoe on the gravel drive and flash her a wry smile. “Turns out there was a lot about my life back then that was fake.”
What newborn pup could tell
sweet milk from sour
fresh meat from rotten?
I, too, long
to bite the hand that fed me
knowing what I know now.
Your hands are a cage
You let nothing fly away
So fearful of love
Familiar, Why Is This So Familiar? – Steven Universe and Monstrous Motherhood
[This post contains Steven Universe spoilers from the current Diamond Days arc.]
Y’all, I fucking love Steven Universe (SU). It speaks to so many facets of my being, especially as a mentally ill queer person, and I often find myself identifying with different characters and plot arcs. I see myself in Peridot when she doesn’t understand social cues or causes offense by accident; in Amethyst when she feels inferior to those around her, even the people she loves; in Garnet when she fears to make a single tiny mistake, lest its consequences be on her shoulders. I’ve been too intense, like Bismuth, and too anxious or controlling, like Pearl. Like Pink Diamond, sometimes I just want to run away from the person I am – and like Steven, sometimes I just want to understand the person I’m meant to become.
SU always cuts to my core. That’s what good fiction should do, especially fiction which purposefully prioritizes themes of healing, acceptance, and love. Yet to have those themes, and to lend them the weight needed to have true impact on your audience, you first need your characters to face trauma, ostracism, and cruelty. Thus enter the Great Diamond Authority.
Unbelievably powerful, these gem matriarchs rule the universe with elegance and hauteur, a trinity of terror who allow no deviance from the norm. For several seasons the diamonds play the role of invisible villains as the show builds an elaborate framework for the inevitable confrontation, and it’s only now, in the Diamond Days arc of season five, that we’re learning just how complex the diamonds really are. And the more we learn, the more we understand the crimes of which they’re capable.
We know now that White Diamond, Yellow Diamond, and Blue Diamond acted as mothers to the younger and far more impetuous Pink Diamond. They intended to raise her in their image, another perfect diamond to rule over gem society – yet how often does that work? Children aren’t carbon copies (excuse the pun) of their parents, and when expectations and reality clash it is often the child who bears the brunt of the pain. The diamonds expect Pink to think, feel, and behave in a very limited framework based on their concepts of what a diamond should be, and when she cannot or will not they retaliate. In trying to do what they believe is right for Pink, they become abusive. Each diamond on her own displays certain characteristics of abusive parents, and I think it’s no coincidence that combined they represent the full complexity of an abuser.
Yellow Diamond is the mother who is always disappointed. She believes she just wants what’s best for you, but in doing so she will never be happy with what you achieve. Your GPA will never be high enough for her, your body skinny enough, your career prestigious enough. Yellow will always find flaws, even in the perfect form of a literal diamond. She prefers negative, combative emotions over positive or traditionally weak ones. Yellow is the mother who never says “I love you” or reciprocates displays of affection; she expects her tolerance of your presence to be a sufficient testament to her true feelings. Her mentality is unhealthy on its own, but directed at a child it causes lifelong feelings of inadequacy, emotional repression, and an anxiety that drives you to work yourself to death. Additionally, Yellow is also shown to spy on Pink Diamond to ensure she’s behaving correctly, a very common tactic of abusive parents – and one she seems to share with White Diamond as well.
White Diamond is the mother who demands perfection. This isn’t to say she acts like the perfect mother, though. Instead, she simply wills the world to be the way she desires and everything must fall in line with her vision. She wears a mask so convincing you question its existence; maybe she really is always smiling, always in control, always omniscient and omnipresent. This is supported by the fact that, at least at the time of me writing this, we don’t actually know that much about White. We know she is the true gem matriarch and has almost entirely withdrawn herself from society. Instead of seeming reclusive or cold, though, or perhaps even mentally unstable, she in fact seems completely calm and in control (albeit in a creepy way). Yet she speaks to her subjects through the broken Pink Pearl, who seems to be a constant reminder of what happens if you draw White’s ire. She is obviously not afraid of using force to keep her court in line.
Blue Diamond is the mother who can be friend or foe. Her mood changes without warning – one moment she’s weeping with joy or reminiscing about fond family memories, the next she’s sneering over something you’ve said or done, or perhaps threatening your deviance with punishment. Personally, I find Blue Diamond’s brand of abuse the most disturbing. The inability to predict how someone will respond emotionally causes constant anxiety, especially when those potential negative reactions might involve physical abuse. Blue is the ultimate manipulator, preying on your love and guilt to keep you returning to her no matter what she does. Of all of the diamonds, Blue is the one who seems the most redeemable… and therein lies her power. Every time she’s in a good mood you’re tricked into thinking she’s changed and you let your guard down, making yourself that much more vulnerable to her next attack.
Even the way the diamonds are slowly revealed to us follows this cyclical pattern of abuse. First we think they’re unfeeling dictators; then we realize they’re in mourning, which humanizes them. They attack Earth and we hate them again; then they seem to change as they realize Pink never died and she has “returned” to them as Steven. They even take him back to Homeworld where we think they’ll help him convince White to heal the corrupted gems… but instead their true natures are revealed once more the moment he steps out of line. Each time we think and hope the diamonds have changed, and each time we are disappointed; yet at the first sign of change we start the cycle over again. Hope can be a very dangerous thing in the hands of an abuser.
Since I’m writing this before the diamonds’ arc is complete, I don’t know their ultimate fate. I used to hope Blue and Yellow would be redeemed but now I’m not sure what I want. Everyone deserves a redemption arc, don’t they? One of SU’s biggest themes is redemption, after all, and other villains have become loyal friends of the Crystal Gems. If the diamonds can just recognize the error of their ways and seek to undo their crimes, shouldn’t they be given a second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance? Yet we’re not talking about ignorant children here, or gems acting on their superior’s orders; everything harmful or evil in SU can be traced back to the diamonds, even if some of what they’ve done was well intended. They are the reason gem society is so stratified and destructive. Do people who cause such pain for those under their care deserve redemption arcs too? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.