Bismuth, and the struggle for liberation
The introduction, and subsequent benching, of the new character Bismuth in Steven Universe has been one of the most frustrating moments in the show’s run. Not only is Bismuth a wonderful character in her own right (who can’t be charmed by Uzo Aduba?), but her political stance is correct as well, only to have it bungled in the tension between pacifism and action.
Steven Universe presents contradictory information within the final few episodes of Season 3 regarding the appropriate use of violence. In “Bismuth”, we see the pacifist nature of Steven play out against Bismuth’s eager militarization. Bismuth was sealed away during a war, and emerges from her solitude with a mindset eager to fight. Unfortunately, the rest of the Crystal Gems have pacified. Stuck on Earth, the Crystal Gems merely protect the Earth from threats of Homeworld and others, instead of taking a more active military stance in combating the imperialist empire, aka Bismuth’s stance. At the end of the episode, Bismuth presents a weapon called “the breaking point”, a weapon that can shatter gems, destroying them (or rather, killing them) for good. It’s a tool that would redefine the fight against the imperialist empire of Homeworld, initially presented to Rose Quartz during the war thousands of years ago, only for Bismuth to be betrayed by her leader, and the revolution to fail as Homeworld razed the Earth with a massive super weapon. Steven cannot accept the breaking point, however, sticking to his pacifism. They end up fighting, and in the end, Steven bubbles Bismuth.
Not only does the shelve a wonderful character for a while (we’ll likely see her again), it’s incredibly frustrating on a political level, as Bismuth is right. With a militant stance against the imperialist empire (and class consciousness to boot), Bismuth presents what the tools and discipline necessary to win against homeworld. Though she would likely have to alter her plans a bit (there isn’t exactly an active war between Earth and Homeworld now, nor are there easy means of getting to Homeworld), she is, in spirit, correct in her militant stance.
The episode ends, however, with Steven rejecting Bismuth and her weapon, throwing it into the magma of her lair, and later, the other Crystal Gems tearfully adding Bismuth to the cloud of bubbled gems, hibernating towards infinity.
The contradictions grow in “Back to the Moon” and “Bubbled”, episodes that deal with the oft speculated relationship between Pink Diamond and Rose Quartz. As a Ruby explains in “Back to the Moon”, Rose Quartz shattered Pink Diamond, information Steven at first cannot accept. How could his pacifist mother shatter another gem? Steven gets his answer at the end of “Bubbled”:
Steven: … How come nobody told me about Pink Diamond?
Garnet: We all did what we had to during the war. Everything’s different now.
Steven: But did mom really do it? Did she really shatter her?
Garnet: She had to. The Earth belonged to Pink Diamond. Destroying her was the only way to save the planet. For Amethyst to be herself, for Pearl to be free, for me to be together. For you to exist.
Steven: But I thought… A-at least she’d never…
Garnet: She didn’t always do what was best for her. But she always did what was best for Earth.
Steven: Even if it meant shattering someone..
This information posits that yes, violence can be the answer, particularly in a struggle for liberation. And yet it is utterly frustrating, as its clearly contradictory to the kind of moral pacifism pushed in “Bismuth”. Perhaps if Steven knew about Rose Quartz’s decision, the outcome of meeting Bismuth would have been different. While “Bismuth” does hold these two views (pacifism and militant action) in tension, the show has always sided with Steven’s approach to “talking it out” with out gems, and winning them over to the Crystal Gems. It’s a tactic that works for the situation on Earth now, with gems isolated and time to talk to them, but with a conflict with Homeworld brewing, Steven can’t hope that talking it out with an army is going to work.
Garnet’s line that “We all did what we had to during the war. Everything’s different now” is the crux of the issue. Steven Universe posits that Bismuth is stuck in the past, in the war with violence was the only answer, and that her militancy isn’t applicable to the current situation, and is therefore harmful. First of all, this wouldn’t be the case if Rose Quartz hadn’t betray her, and hid her away without telling the other Crystal Gems. But while Bismuth’s military adventurism requires more discipline in terms of long term planning (her enthusiasm blinds her to the low capacity of the Crystal Gems), this isn’t to say her militancy is completely a relic of the past. Homeworld will be coming, and when they do, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bismuth comes back just for that fight. But Bismuth’s militancy isn’t just applicable to that fight, but to all struggles of liberation. She should be fighting right alongside the Crystal Gems, with a fighting spirit that doesn’t necessarily exclude the ability to talk and convince stray gems like Jasper to come to their side. In sum, Steven Universe needs to get down to Bismuth and treat her right.