Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Business with “Bismuth”

I don’t think anyone would disagree that this season of Steven Universe is tackling some very difficult, mature issues. From feelings of inadequacy, to the struggle with accepting grief and moving on, to ways of coping, approaching, and dealing with different forms of abuse, the crew behind the show seem genuinely invested in giving kids (and their older audience) outlets and role models for healthier ways of dealing with these very real problems. So when the newest episode “Bismuth” came up, many were interested in seeing what issues it would tackle. The crew had teased Bismuth’s existence by proof of her gem for a while, and designs of her humanoid form had been floating around way before the episode even aired: needless to say that there was a general consensus of excitement over having another Black-coded gem joining the cast, if only for a little while.Yet, after the episode, many fans were left confused and angry by Bismuth’s episode. Indeed, despite their best intent, the heads behind Steven Universe tackled an issue that they didn’t have time to account for, and in the end this lack of time hindered Bismuth as a character, the Crystal Gems, and the perception of the crew behind the show.

Steven Universe Bismuth Title CardMajor spoilers for “Bismuth” under the cut.

After being freed from her stasis, Bismuth has an emotional reunion with Pearl and Garnet. As they fondly reminisce about the past, Amethyst is left feeling, once again, unsure of her place in the Crystal Gems, while Steven is wondering what kind of gem Bismuth is, exactly. Soon enough, he finds out: Bismuth is jovial—always ready with a joke and an open arm for any of the Crystal Gems—and passionate about liberating her fellow sisters from the tyrannical rule of the Diamonds. After some bonding over training and card games, the three older Crystal Gems lead the others to a place called The Forge. The Forge, which only Bismuth knows how to activate, is a massive stronghold where Bismuth created all the weapons used by the Crystal Gems’ forces in the battle for Earth. Bismuth updates everyone’s weapons with a cool new add-on and the team returns above ground, but before heading to sleep, Steven reveals to Bismuth that he’s worried that he’ll never match up to his mother, Rose Quartz. Seeking to soothe his worries, Bismuth takes Steven back to the forge in order to gift him a weapon that would make him unstoppable: the Breaking Point. After seeing the weapon in action, and seeing that its sole purpose is to shatter gems irreparably, Steven refuses the weapon and tells Bismuth that using such tactics would make the Gems as bad as the Diamonds. The two battle, and Steven ends up turning Bismuth back into a gem and bubbling her (encasing said gem in a protective pink bubble), telling the other gems what transpired.

While the episode, from a summary standpoint, doesn’t sound horrible, the execution combined with everything else audiences have learned about the show’s universe mix together in a tone-deaf manner that’s uncomfortable to watch for the wrong reasons. Bismuth has so many reasons to be angry. She was bubbled away by none other than Rose Quartz (for the same argument, no less), but beyond that, Rose didn’t even deign to tell Pearl or Garnet what happened to her. Indeed, in the five thousand years between Bismuth being bubbled and being freed, both Pearl and Garnet believed their very dear friend to be dead. Hiding this hurt, Bismuth still approached Steven—who she was quickly told was partly Rose, but not actually Rose—in a kind manner and accepted him as someone who could maybe repair whatever bridges Rose may have burned down. Yet, once again she discovers that Steven is unwilling to perform the one action Bismuth knows will bring down the Diamonds, and again she questions whether or not any incarnation of Rose really cares about bringing justice to gems at all. They fight, and back into the bubble she goes.

Sometimes the peaceful route just doesn't work.

Sometimes the peaceful route just doesn’t work. (x)

One of the main tenants of Steven Universe is that people should attempt to find solutions to things that avoid harm if possible. Steven attempted to talk with Bismuth; however, by making the “solution” to the problem essentially imprisoning Bismuth once again for an indeterminate amount of time, it feels strange. Bismuth and Steven didn’t agree, but by cutting off any other opportunities to talk, it presents a narrative where fighting back against your oppressors is wrong because if you do “you’re just as bad as they are.” Sometimes, revolution isn’t peaceful. Sometimes people get hurt and dieas shown with Centipeedle and the unnamed Crystal Gem army. Steven should not be forced to make a decision on whether or not swaths of gems should live or die (he’s barely a teenager), yet by putting him as Bismuth’s “opponent” in this battle of beliefs, it instantly makes it that much harder for Bismuth’s point to be accepted. Steven is sympathetic, a child, and a character whom audiences have gotten to know on a deeper level, whereas Bismuth is given barely any time to connect with the audienceeven Jasper has had more time, and she’s just a lackey of one of the big bads. There was no chance for Bismuth’s point to ever be heard, or her traumas to ever be addressed. Even in the end, when presented with Bismuth’s bubbled gem, there was a sense that the Gems were not going to pursue further dialogue with Bismuth and that while what happened was unfortunate, Steven was still in the right.

Even outside of the episode’s narrative specifically, while many fans were initially excited for Bismuth’s character, a good portion of these fans were left feeling hurt because of how she was treated. Steven Universe is one of the most diverse cartoons on cable right now, but it doesn’t mean that this representation is perfect. Bismuth is a Black-coded character, but more than that, she’s a Black woman who is extremely muscular and strong. By the end of the episode, though, again audiences are left with a Black woman character who is presented as threatening and even irrational. Of course Black characters, and especially Black women, should be explored in all facets from the “good” to the “bad”, but given that the main cast of Steven Universe only has one other Black woman character—who is also strong, but presented as “unstable” when she gets too emotional or angry—it unfortunately runs into an issue of typecasting. This is further enforced by Sugilite, a fusion between Garnet and Amethyst voiced by Nicki Minaj. Sugilite (another physically imposing Black-coded gem) only seemed to have fun when she was destroying something and had no interest in listening to the worried calls of Pearl and Steven. She, too, was seemingly only introduced to talk about how bad violence is and then never be heard of again except in warning whispers. Even if this sort of typecasting is not what the crew intended, the trend that’s emerging is rather worrying.

Why wouldn't they talk about this?!!?! (via anythingstevenuniverse @ Tumblr)

Why wouldn’t they talk about this?!!?!
(via anythingstevenuniverse @ Tumblr)

No one is perfect, and we are all still learning how to combat our internal prejudices. Still, in the end it seems like there was a simple solution to this problem: talking. If Bismuth had been allowed to talk more about her struggles, if the Gems didn’t wordlessly store Bismuth away for safekeeping and instead sought to talk to her about what Steven revealed to them, surely they could have reached some better conclusion. Understandably Bismuth’s voice actress Uzo Aduba is a busy woman who may simply not have the time to come in and record lots of episodes (and the same is true for Nicki Minaj), but even showing the viewers an ending where Bismuth stayed in The Forge until further notice would allow for the illusion of conversation, reconciliation, and healing. While the Steven Universe crew is held to a higher standard due to their past inclusivity, and in some sense it does almost feel like some were standing by waiting for them to fail, I can only hope that they’ll listen and really take to heart the worries of the fans. If they can’t do so for Bismuth specifically, then they can at least give more episodes to the Gems who are coded as women of color.

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This entry was posted in feminism, opinion, Racial Issues, Steven Universe, tv show and tagged , , , , , , , by Tsunderin. Bookmark the permalink.

About Tsunderin

Greetings and salutations! Feel free to just call me Rin—we’re all friends here, or nemeses who just haven’t gotten to know each other well enough. I’m a video game lover from the womb to the tomb, and Bioware enthusiast until the day they stop making games with amazing characters that I cry over. And while I don’t partake as often as I used to, don’t be surprised to find me poking around an anime or manga every once in a while either. A personal interest for me is characterization in media and how women in particular have been portrayed, are being portrayed, and will be portrayed in the future. I’m not going to mince words about my opinion either.

4 thoughts on “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Business with “Bismuth”

  1. I saw this more as a Rose Quartz spotlight – I’ve been saying the picture we see of Rose is from the eyes of 3 people that loved her so much they can’t see straight, so her perfection is all that we ever hear about her when it’s so obvious that she was very flawed, and wasn’t always the best person. When Bismuth started in going “The worst part is, you didn’t even think I mattered!” it honestly hit home for me, and was the depiction of Rose I was looking for from the series. Doesn’t seem to me they were looking to show diversity – that has never been the shows end goal in my opinion – it’s all about tackling the different types of emotion people go through in life, and how to deal with them with the people around you, and I think that episode did this very well. To me, in Steven Universe, it’s just the characters happen to be a certain color, which honestly I like: they don’t make a big deal about people’s skin color, or abilities or disabilities, and as a black, blind woman it’s something I really respect in the show.

  2. Bismuth in the real world is a volatile element, so I went in knowing that she was going to be very sweet and then once exposed enough to the world (I.e. The war isn’t over but it’s no longer here) she said fine let’s bring the war to them. With something that will end it all finally! I feel it showed more how flawed Rose was and that she wasn’t god to everyone. That she did hurt people who thought she was a saint at first.

    As for Sugalite, she’s 3 gems bonded together. Ruby’s are made for fighting and being royal guard. And as we know our Ruby is hot headed. Now pair her with “let’s trash everything for fun” Amethyst and you have a destructive fusion. Kinda like how Malachite loses control because of Jasper’s anger; Sugalite is violent because Sapphire can’t calm the storm that is Ruby and Amethyst. It doesn’t really have anything to do with race, never has. All the gems are based on real world qualities and what they symbolize.

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