[Analysis] Pearl Appreciation (Steven Universe)

Source: https://steven-universe.fandom.com/wiki/The_Reef

By: Peggy Sue Wood | @pswediting

I must admit that when Steven Universe (SU) was airing, I wasn’t a fan of the show. However, I did watch the series at random intervals due to my friend group being largely obsessed with it. As many friends moved on from the series, I continued to check back in because of my favorite character from the show, Pearl. The Pearl we knew long before Blue Diamond’s Pearl and Yellow Diamond’s Pearl appeared or even the original Pink Diamond’s Pearl (now called Volleyball) joined the cast. 

 Despite her cold color palette and sharp edges, Pearl had a warm and motherly demeanor that was endearing to me. I liked that they said things that were sometimes wrong, but they were always confident in their words.

What truly stood out was Pearl’s moments of grief and guilt, which were a result of their complex relationship with Pink Diamond/Rose Quartz (Rose). Pearl was privy to many of Rose’s secrets, and her devotion was completely intertwined with Rose’s influence. This was evident throughout the show, and Pearl’s desire for freedom and independence often reflected Rose’s own wants and desires rather than appearing as though it was their own wish.

Pearl’s whole inspiration is Rose, and their devotion is entirely engrained with Rose’s influence, this becomes more and more evident as we see flashbacks of Pearl and Rose’s relationship in the series wherein Pearl still aligns themself to what they think Rose wants them to want over time. In a reflection of the earlier seasons, Pearl’s want for freedom and maintenance of independence is often just an expansion of Rose’s wants and desires going so far as to repeat Rose’s words to themself in a rehearsed way. This likely stems not just from Pearl’s affection toward Rose, but from having been born into a society of slavery and brainwashing. As a result, I feel that Pearl had the hardest time adjusting to the pressure and freedom of life on Earth, at least when compared to Garnet and Amethyst.

Garnet embodied the freedom that Rose wanted for gems. Garnet has let go of Home World, merged with another gem, and founded a peaceful existence on Earth. While Garnet grieves the passing of Rose as a friend, their self-identity is not defined by Rose as we see when Sapphire and Ruby are able to reflect and rejoin. And Amethyst, being younger, never knew the oppression of Home World, therefore can only understand from an outside perspective what Pearl, Garnet, and Rose have seen or experienced as gems who escaped from an oppressive society to find refuge on Earth. Losing Rose–while painful–is not nearly the same for Amethyst as it is for Garnet (by extension, Ruby and Sapphire) or Pearl.

So while Garnet and Amethyst are dealing with the loss of a close friend and family member, Pearl is dealing with the loss of her reason for being. Sure, Pearl was “free” under Rose, but she was maintaining her status as a servant or slave under Rose. The series did try to combat this by having Pearl “chose” to follow Rose, but I struggle to see what other options Pearl had because it seemed like it was either return to Home World and become the slave to another gem (if not being poofed/destroyed) or follow their new, kinder master into an unknown, but a less oppressive lifestyle.

Unlike Rubies or Sapphires, whose roles had their own levels and advancements within the system of oppression, a Pearls’ station on Home World and other Gem-run planets had nothing to do with their achievements. Their existence was purely for the convenience and pleasure of other gems. It was to the extent that Pearls, from what I understand in seeing the show, were forced to take on a specific shape/figure and attire chosen by their owners, unlike the other gems who could choose, to some extent, a form of self-identity in the form they take when forming from the gem-state (Steven Universe Future, Episode 4 “Volleyball”).

It is these underlying pressures that really drew me to the character, even before we learned about all these details surrounding Pearl’s character. I felt like it was clear that this kind of story was intentional and meant to come out at some point since Pearl always seemed to take Rose’s death harder than the others, and it never felt to me like the only reason for that was an unrequited love. I think that a very telling scene leading up to this feeling is when Pearl meets Lion for the first time and ends up running away:

Title: “Steven Universe | Rose’s Scabbard – Steven Comforts Pearl | Cartoon Network” | Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z34V-pHgLRE&ab_channel=StevenUniverse

In the scene where Pearl meets Lion, they are destroyed emotionally by the idea that something about Rose is hidden from them, because they likely didn’t have any secrets from Rose and because it seems to betray that idea of Rose trusting Pearl. Pearl’s outburst from grief says a lot about their trauma and relationship with Rose. Amethyst gets upset but doesn’t follow and most likely does not really understand the depth of pain Pearl has suffered. Meanwhile, Garnet remains silent at Pearl’s outburst, probably understanding that Pearl suffered a lot more as a gem with a significantly lower status when they lived on Home World but not knowing that Pearl had been Rose’s, a Diamond’s, pearl.

In the minutes following the outburst, we get to see how Pearl’s character is a form of devotion to Rose’s chosen path for her, rather than an independent choice or path Pearl came up with or joined after hearing about other gems wishing for freedom. It was Rose’s idea, and Pearl, her Pearl (“my Pearl”), followed.

Amythest, again, can’t really understand the difference in how Pearl views the loss. Garnet, while empathetic towards Pearl, is understanding that there is a difference in the feelings of loss because Pearl’s different experience from their former lives on Home World, but also can’t fully experience the depth of Pearl’s pain because–unlike Pearl–Garnet was truly free of the Diamonds and their dictatorship while Pearl was still living directly under one and keeping that Diamond’s secret.

It’s why I think Garnet remains so much more grounded in reality than Pearl–such as when Steven is born and Garnet accepts that Rose is gone, while Pearl can’t stop crying. They’re at two very different stages in the grieving process (Season 4, Episode “Three Gems and a Baby”). At times, this means that Garnet comes off a little cold to Pearl. Maybe not from the audience’s perspective as viewers see Rose’s passing as having been a long time ago by this point, but from a gem’s perspective, it has only been, like, a few months or days even since the loss. Remember, that Pearl has been with Rose for more than 5,000 years, so 10-20 years with Steven is an incredibly short period of time for what is, essentially, an immortal life. That’s not even taking into account that during those 5,000 years, Pearl really didn’t fully explore their freedom since Pearl spent it at Rose’s side, walking the line of what is permissible by Rose and what isn’t in terms of boundaries–unlike Garnet did who has had the chance to grow up apart from Rose, the Diamonds, and other parts of gem society.

Title: “Steven Universe | Rainbow Quartz | Rose and Pearl Fuse | We Need to Talk | Cartoon Network” | Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6OfY0NOXunQ&ab_channel=StevenUniverse

I think a scene that speaks to this idea of Pearl never being free until Rose’s passing comes from Season 2, Episode 9, “We Need To Talk,” wherein Rose and Pearl fuse.

Rose, as a Diamond, and as the leader seemed to abuse Pearl without meaning to simply by stringing them along. Remember that fusing is a deeply personal experience for the gems. On Home World, it is a heavily regulated act and as Garnet, as well as Sapphire and Ruby, show and tells us, it is not a process to be taken lightly. While Pearl may have instigated the above scene where the two fuse, Rose is the one using Pearl here. Rose is doing so to entertain Greg, while Pearl is trying to show how close they are and disuade Greg from getting closer. When the two gems separate again, Rose’s focus is on Greg, and Pearl is clearly jealous and unhappy, trying to then tell Greg that he’ll never be as close as they are.

We know that this is even more personal for Pearl, as she fantasizes about a relationship with Rose that Rose has fully encouraged, as seen here:

Title: “Steven Universe | Pearl fuses with Rose Quartz | Now We’re Only Falling Apart | Cartoon Network” | Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0q2ZwnkGBSQ&t=83s&ab_channel=StevenUniverse

I thought about this a lot in the earlier seasons, and I realized that it’s not until Steven is beginning to enter his teens that Pearl really begins to assert themself fully as a separate, independent, and free being–likely because Steven is no longer as reliant on them for care. The “Back to the Barn” episode is a great example of this as we learn about Pearl’s former life as a gem-slave. It’s also a great episode because it’s them asserting themselves and finding themselves again after losing Rose and realizing that Steven won’t rely on them forever.

It sparks, in my mind, the journey that Pearl’s character has to make is one that reflects on their grief, allows them to overcome trauma, and particularly one that allows them the attempt to overcome a secret trauma without anyone knowing. It is what made Pearl’s story much more compelling to me from a character’s storytelling perspective, as Pearl must first overcome their grief and then find a new definition of identity and path based on their own wants, needs, and desires–something the other main-cast gems developed years ago.

It is also why I liked later seasons where Pearl is shown to be moving forward in the grieving process beyond the state of reliving Rose’s death over and over (which, they seemed to be doing via reenactments during self-isolation away from the other gems and Steven). 

This development really showed itself in “Mr. Greg“ (Season 3), when Pearl sang “It’s Over, Isn’t It?” and by Steven Universe Future, Pearl’s character arc enters a state of healing–both from the grief of losing Rose and from the suffering they had undergone as a Pearl in the formerly oppressive gem society. 

Is Pearl completely healed? Probably not. I mean, again–they are very old and it has not been that long for them. However, they are, at the very least, free of the shackles and dealing with the pain, as noted in Pearl’s Song, featured in Steven Universe Future, “Happily Ever After.”

That’s my appreciation for Pearl, y’all. Thanks for reading. Oh, and #Bispearl because I ship it.

Title: Pearl’s Story – Happily Ever After | Steven Universe (HD 4K) | Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtorJzBYRDY&ab_channel=LazuliBoy

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