“That’s why the people of this world believe in Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, and Steven!” sing Steven Universe and the Crystal Gems from Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe as they teleport on a warp pad in a beacon of light. Arguably the most popular animated cartoon series airing on Cartoon Network, Steven Universe has received critical acclaim, with critics praising its art, music, voice performances, storytelling, and its characterization. It also has a broad and active fandom. The series has its own Facebook group page, Rebecca Sugar will update fans on her twitter account by sharing tweets of new episodes or her own illustrations, and fans have created hundreds of Tumblr accounts dedicated to blogging or reblogging content dealing with Steven Universe. There are even fan blogs like The World of Steven Universe that upload new episodes, shorts, and other videos related to Steven Universe for viewers who don’t have access to cable. This actually reminds me of Abigail Des Kosnik’s Fandom as Free Labor where she talks about the first AOL chat groups as being a space where “the fans could freely donate their time, energy and creativity to making fan productions that they share online for the pleasures of communication and exchange” (Kosnik).
It’s an equally rewarding watch for children and adults which is why I revisited Episode 8, entitled “Mr. Greg,” from Season 3. The episode includes a dramatic scene where Pearl sings “It’s Over, Isn’t It,” which details her struggle with both Rose’s absence and the fact that Rose chose Greg over her. While the majority of the viewers praised the song’s emotional depiction of Pearl’s grief (dominant) others found the song delightful yet didn’t quite empathize with her (negotiated) for their own reasons. Shockingly (to me at least), some viewers outright disliked the song and completely misunderstood the intended message behind it (oppositional).
In this special musical episode, Steven travels to Empire City with Pearl and Greg, who recently received a check for $10 million after one of his songs became a success. However, Pearl still heavily resents Greg since Rose Quartz, the love of her life, chose him over her, the love relationship essentially being the cause of Rose’s absence. To improve their relationship, Steven tries to show Pearl and Greg that they have more in common than they think – they both love and are loved by Steven, the product of Rose.
Below is a segment featuring the song “It’s Over, Isn’t It.”
In Stuart Hall’s essay Encoding/Decoding, the dominant viewpoint position requires the viewer to “takes the connoted meaning from and decodes the message in terms of the reference code in which it has been encoded,” or receives the message and accepts it. Pearl wants to convey to the viewers how difficult it has been for her to move on after Rose Quartz fell in love with Greg even though she was her most loyal companion. Deep down she knows the love Greg and Rose expressed to one another was genuine and intimate (unlike past men in Rose’s life) but can’t bring it past herself to completely shake the romantic feelings she had for her beloved Quartz. She desperately wants to move on but is stuck. After scrolling down and reading some of the comments of the video, it was apparent that several viewers understood where Pearl was coming from and the song as heartbreakingly beautiful. Callum McIntosh said, “Pearl has a reason to be sad. She fought an entire by Rose’s side, then Greg came and took that away. Ouch.” and Jbskif described the song as a “beautiful soliloquy about love and loss as [Pearl] struggles to move on from Rose’s death.” One particular blogger in a post on Tumblr watched the episode and highlighted these song lyrics:
War and glory, reinvention
Fusion, freedom, her attention
Out in daylight, my potential
Bold, precise, experimental
and felt that Pearl “[was] reflecting back on all she dreamed of, the things she aspired for before Rose left. She was a renegade soldier, fighting for change, ideals of freedom and self-importance. Pearl came from a background where she was never meant to fight, but she worked at it, became something stronger than she was, for herself as much as for Rose. Out in daylight, my potential. Bold, precise, experimental. These are things Pearl truly sees herself as, or at least, she used to. Someone who was growing, becoming something better, something she could be proud of.”
“Then immediately she falls, doubts herself, thinks of what she is now, what she’s become in Rose’s absence. She thinks herself “petty and dull,” as if she’ll never be anything beyond that (what does it matter? it’s already done), but she has to be here without Rose. Be there for Steven. Because if there’s nothing else Pearl can do that’s worthwhile, she at least wants to be there for Steven.”
These are examples of viewers taking a dominant position because they wholeheartedly embrace the meaning behind Pearl’s song. They recognize how much she has been hurting but also her desire to move on from the pain. The way these three people have interpreted or decoded the message has allowed them to grasp Pearl’s grief and frustration with herself.
Not every viewer was able to make the connection. After watching the episode, some of them were less eager to empathize with Pearl. Stuart Hall describes this position as the negotiated code where “it acknowledges the legitimacy of the hegemonic definitions to make the grand significations (abstract)’ while, at a more restricted, situational (situated) level, it makes its own ground rules,” or doesn’t wholly accept the message but still watches it. A few comments merely said they liked the song but there is no effort to fully understand the meaning behind the song. One of them was Sophia Del Campo who agreed that Pearl should be over it but “it’s been 14 years since Rose’s death tbh pearl is too clingy in my opinion she needs to cry a river build a bridge and get over it this is probably the 1,000th time she’s cried because of Rose being gone.”
This is an example of a viewer taking the negotiated position because they do not wholly accept the message Pearl is trying to convey but they still watched it and acknowledged Pearl’s grief. Del Campo does not understand that she is grieving over her loss of Rose and the struggle to get over it is impeding on her ability to be there for Steven (Rose’s son). Their comment demonstrates a superficial understanding that Pearl should move on but instead of interpreting the message given by Pearl as a struggle of a lost loved one Campo has a disconnect in decoding it. Their comment becomes nothing more than a gripe about Pearl’s constant grief and interprets that as clinginess which is not the intent of this scene.
Lastly, there are viewers who outright disapprove of Steven Universe because it’s queer-affirming. One of which was Bland Bread who took an oppositional approach and posted the comment below.
Hall points out that viewers who are in this position tend to “detotalize the message in the preferred code in order to retotalize the message within some alternative framework of reference,” and are completely unaccepting of the message. This is an example of the oppositional approach because Bland Bread watched this segment of the episode but ‘read’ every scene of Pearl’s mourning over Rose’s death as lesbianism and inappropriate for children to watch. Bland Bread obviously has an issue with Steven Universe having LGBTQ representations in an animated television series created for kids and does not accept the message behind Pearl’s song.
Steven Universe’s massive fandom has a wide range of viewpoints. For the most part, viewers praise the animated series for appealing to not only heterosexual individuals but also people who identify as LGBTQ+ which is a huge step forward for gender-identity representations. However, not everyone within the fandom or even outside it will interpret the message its episode is trying to communicate one-hundred percent because we have our own set of beliefs and thoughts. Ultimately, it is important to try and understand what the piece of media is really trying to say to its audience.