Cartoon Network's Steven Universe uses fusion—the physical and mental merging of two people—as a shorthand to illustrate the depth of both platonic and romantic relationships. Because the bulk of the series' characters are women, the majority of those relationships are coded as being implicitly queer. Steven Universe's portrayal of healthy gay relationships has been one of its greatest strengths since it premiered in 2014.
But this season, which wraps up this week, spent a significant amount of time exploring the sort of complicated, emotionally abusive pairings that children's shows rarely dare to comment on.
While most fusions are made through positive emotions, this season's antagonist, a fusion named Malachite, was forged from anger and hate in a moment of fear. Because of that, Malachite struggles to maintain her mental and physical stability and ultimately throws herself to the bottom of the ocean to avoid causing any more harm.
Given that Steven Universe is a kids' cartoon about a group of heroes fighting to protect the earth, Malachite easily could have been written as a two-dimensional villain. Instead, though, writers Hilary Florido, Kat Morris, and Rebecca Sugar used this character to unpack the difficult, conflicting feelings that can arise when someone's trapped in a toxic relationship.
Over the course of the season, Malachite splits back into Jasper, a warrior who valued the fusion for its strength, and Lapis, who felt coerced into the pairing and is left traumatized by the experience. Being fused with Jasper, Lapis explains to Steven, felt like being trapped, but because they were fused together for so long, part of her misses Jasper.
Steven doesn't understand how Lapis can feel that way, but before she can explain, their conversation is interrupted by Jasper, who has been following Lapis since their separation.
"Let's be Malachite again. It'll be better this time," Jasper says. "I've changed. You've changed me. I'm the only one who can handle your kind of power."
The scene is both a pivotal moment within Steven Universe's larger narrative arc and a powerful depiction of the type of emotional manipulation that often occurs in abusive relationships. According to the CDC, about 44% of lesbian women and 61% of bisexual women experience a form of intimate partner violence at some point in their lives. While Steven, and the show's younger audience, may not be able to comprehend why Lapis would want Jasper back, her feelings are grounded in the very real feelings that some victims of intimate partner violence have that drive them to go back to their abusers.
"What we had wasn't healthy," Lapis tells Jasper after a moment of hesitation. "I never want to feel like I felt with you. Never again. So just go."
Steven Universe's decision to unpack the ways in which queer relationships, like all relationships, can take a turn for the worse and traumatize people in the process is an important one. Despite the fact that the show has a fairly large cult following of adults, it's still squarely aimed at young kids.
As more and more children come into their sexualities and gender identities at a younger age, there's a growing need for the types of experiences they're bound to have to be acknowledged and addressed in the media that they consume. We push for representation of healthy LGBT relationships because we want people to see that their feelings are valid and deserving of respect, but there is something to be said for a show speaking frankly about abuse.