Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Rocknaldo Teaches Us About Problematic Ally-Ship

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We know, We know, many people dislike Ronaldo episodes of Steven Universe. While we tend to like them more than most (“Rising Tides/Crashing Skies” was great), we understand this dislike. Ronaldo can be a a bit of a selfish idiot (aka “Jerknaldo”, his nickname, not ours) and such characters grate on the nerves pretty quickly. An episode named “Rocknaldo” probably made a few eyes roll for that reason.

But don’t get hung up on these minor facts! If nothing else Ronaldo episodes have some of the best Steven Universe foreshadowing, even if no one realizes it at the time. What did he accidentally predict this time around? Let’s check it out.

Spoilers for 4×18 “Rocknaldo” below


Someone put him on a catwalk, pronto.

We open this week with Steven strutting his stuff through Beach City and glad to be home. He comes across Ronaldo handing out pamphlets – sorry, Ronalphlets – warning about a danger to Beach City. Everyone ignores him, but good ole’ Steven plays along as always. He’s such a good kid.

When he sits down to read Ronaldo’s literature, however, he finds it’s warning against Rock People, AKA gems. He immediately confronts Ronaldo about this. Ronaldo insists he is not warning against the Crystal Gems. They’re not rock people, they fight rock people. Steven tells him they are rock people, and displays this by personally doing everything Ronaldo says separates rock people from the Crystal Gems. He shows the gem embedded in his body, summons his shield, and forms a cat finger to show his ability to alter his form.

This was actually a brief, awesome display of just how far Steven has really come over the past 3 seasons. Even if he’s still scared to death of the cat finger. (Who can blame him? That was a terrifying episode. Please, never do that level of body horror again, Crewniverse.) Steven also schools Ronaldo on proper terminology.

“Don’t say rock people, it’s offensive”.

Ronaldo realizes his mistake and apologizes. The good person that he is, Steven tells him he wasn’t wrong about everything, that gems are just misunderstood, and everyone makes mistakes. He wants Ronaldo to realize the Crystal Gems are not so different from him. Ronaldo says he needs to go…think…over…things. Yes, he says it like that. Gee, we wonder if he’ll take the wrong message from what Steven said?

Back at the temple, Amethyst mockingly reads another “goodbye forever” message on Ronaldo’s blog. Pearl thinks it’s good that he’s taking time to think, but Ronaldo immediately posts a new entry on his blog. So much for taking time. Pearl’s reaction to this news is fantastic.

Exactly the response this warranted.

Ronaldo’s entry features him admitting his mistakes and the mean things he has said about the Crystal Gems. He feels terrible because he understands more than anyone what it feels like to be an outsider doing thankless work. The only reasonable response, therefore, is for him to join the Crystal Gems!

Cue half the audience groaning just like Pearl.

Ronaldo bursts into the house to tell them what they just watched. The Gems immediately refuse him. Steven sticks up for the idea, because the Crystal Gems are all about love and acceptance so they should accept Ronaldo’s desire to help. He relishes the opportunity to show someone who is genuinely interested exactly what the Crystal Gems stand for. Pearl is still unconvinced, but Garnet claps admiringly (perhaps because she see what is to come?). Soon Amethyst and Pearl join her, and they let Ronaldo in. Pearl quips about him not being the strangest houseguest they’ve ever had, and we have a feeling that was about Peridot.

Remember what Lapis and Peridot told Connie about Steven speeches? Take notes, Connie. That’s how it’s done.

Ronaldo makes himself at home and asks when he will get his gem. Steven starts explaining how it doesn’t work that way but instead asks Ronaldo what gem he’d like to be. He decides on Bloodstone, which Steven says will be his new Crystal Gem name. That’s easily the Edgiest gemsona name to ever Edgelord. Of course Ronaldo picked it.

And of course Ronaldo would pick one of the Edgiest, most cliche weapons to be his: a katana. He’s like a lesson in How To Be A New SU Fanboy 101. He also gets his star in the form of taped construction paper on his appropriately Steven-colored shirt. When the other Crystal Gems show up to take Steven on a mission, though, they don’t let Ronaldo come with them. They explain that Steven can go because he has trained to do so, and Steven sympathizes by telling Ronaldo about not being allowed on missions at first. Ronaldo takes it about as well as Steven did in early Season 1.

Afterwards, Ronaldo asks Steven how the mission went with little interest besides complaining. When Steven starts to leave the house, Ronaldo shames him for hiding his gem, saying that a real Crystal Gem should show their gem off. Steven ties his shirt off below the chest to do so (the midriff baring shirt knot…boy did that take Gretchen back to the 80s).

Later that night, as Steven tries to sleep, Ronaldo wakes him up while trying to slice a milk carton with his replica sword that can supposedly slice a carton of milk like a carton of butter. Once again, he shames Steven for sleeping since gems don’t need sleep. Steven explains that he’s half-human and needs sleep. Ronaldo claims that he doesn’t need to sleep now that he’s a gem. All the while, he yawns and eventually falls tiredly to the couch below.

Steven just wants to sleep, poor bb.

Later we see Connie leave after sword practice. Ronaldo accuses Connie of ripping off using a sword from him, and wonders why he doesn’t get Rose’s sword. He also claims she’s only on the team because she is Steven’s girlfriend, and hasn’t put in the same dedication that he has. He’s living with the Crystal Gems, she only comes to visit. This is the last straw for Steven. He snaps at Ronaldo for telling him what a Crystal Gem is supposed to be when he is just “a guy with a blog.”

Ronaldo turns this around him, claiming Steven is not showing proper Crystal Gem love or acceptance, meaning he is the one who’s not a real Crystal Gem. He thinks Steven should leave and think about his behavior. And unfortunately, being the good kid he is, Steven briefly falls for it. He walks down the beach admonishing himself before quickly realizing how full of it Ronaldo was. When he arrives back at the house, Ronaldo is laughing about something Amethyst never said. Confrontation time.

Steven tells him that while the Crystal Gems are about love and acceptance, he does not love or accept Ronaldo’s mean behavior. He regrets snapping but is upset that Ronaldo only cared about the Crystal Gems when he was directly involved. He didn’t actually care about what the Crystal Gems do. They don’t exist to make Ronaldo feel accepted, no matter how much he wants that to be true.

Then, Ronaldo collapses. Or as Amethyst puts it, “You truthed him so hard he died.”

Not really, though. After a week without sleep he simply could not stay awake any longer. They take him to his father’s shop and leave him outside. Steven texts the Frymans to let them know where Ronaldo is because Garnet has learned from the Maheswarans that parents ought to know how their children are doing. Then, in the low-key candidate for best moment of the episode, the Gems jump twenty feet in the air back to the beach before casually strolling away. So dramatic.

3 weeks later (?!), Steven sees Ronaldo in town. Ronaldo acknowledges his jerky behavior in the most selfish way, saying that even among outsiders he is the ultimate outsider and should work alone. Steven regrets how things went down since he liked the idea of Ronaldo helping the cause of the Crystal Gems. Ronaldo says he still will help, and hands Steven a new Ronalphlet informing Beach City about the Crystal Gems and how to help them.

He used “the magic of photo editing software”. You know, because they can’t say ‘Photoshop’.

Ronaldo then asks (perfectly innocently) why Steven never uses his gem name. Steven explains how it was his mother’s name, and that no one uses it unless they’re about to kidnap him or beat him up. Too true, Steven. Ronaldo then asks if Steven wants that in the info pamphlet. Steven declines.

Delightful Little Gems

  • Is Onion a gem? His brief appearance looked a lot like the way the Gems jump back to the beach at the end.
  • We love that Ronaldo references “Rising Tides/Crashing Skies.”
  • DelmarvaCon made us giggle. Delmarva is the peninsula Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia share.
  • A typical Crystal Gem mission = “fighting monsters and sharing emotions”. We love this show so much.
  • We can’t explain how giddy it made us to see Connie leaving after sword training. Such a nice little touch reaffirming her place on the team.
  • STEVEN DIDN’T DENY CONNIE WAS HIS GIRLFRIEND. He only denied that being the reason she’s on the team.
  • Pearl was epic this episode. Her diss game was on point with Ronaldo’s nicknames. Bloodfry? Fryrocko? She also loved Amethyst’s shapeshifted impersonation, which is awesome. We also love Amethyst’s genuine “Thanks!” to Pearl’s compliment.
  • That’s rough, buddy.” Yay Avatar references!

Lingering Questions

  • Anyone else catch that Steven stuck his finger in his mouth to remove the cat finger? Does that mean his healing spit got rid of it?
  • Can we see this anime called I Can’t Believe My Stepdad’s My Sword? It sounds fascinating.
  • Speaking of sharing emotions, we need details! What emotions did you share on this mission? What was this mission?
  • Is Steven listening to soothing bedtime tapes because he can’t sleep? 🙁
  • Does Ronaldo’s last pamphlet mean there are canon images of the Crystal Gems on the Steven Universe internet?

Closing Thoughts

Another lesson episode, and this is a biggie. It pulls no punches, starting off with a conversation between Ronaldo and Steven with specific, if subtle coding. Ronaldo speaks of ‘menace’ that threatens Beach City, noting in his Ronalphlet that the rock people “hate men”, which sounds an awful lot like a reference to the term “Lavender Menace”. Originally “lavender menace” was a dismissive term used to describe lesbians and the threat straight feminist believed such ‘man-haters’ posed to the feminist movement in 1969. Hmmm, a ‘menace’ of ‘man-hating’ space rocks, all of whom use female pronouns and two of which are explicitly in a romantic relationship? Gee. Wonder what that means (hint: lesbians). Come on, even the background behind Ronaldo as he speaks about the menace is, you guessed it, lavender.

We’ll put it bluntly: this episode is about problematic ally-ship in queer communities. Which is amazing to see depicted so honestly. Steven Universe is pretty much the only show poised to tackle this concept on television generally, much less in children’s media. We appreciate both the courage and sensitivity it took to make this. They do a mighty fine job of it, too, so we’re going to take the time to unpack it with (hopefully!) equal care.

Ronaldo goes from ‘anti’ to ‘ally’ once confronted with his misinformation and prejudice, which is great. But, he wrongly assumes that what makes someone a Crystal Gem is being an outsider and doing thankless work. As many well-intentioned allies do, he finds an experience he shares with the Crystal Gems, and assumes he belongs in their space (in this situation, quite literally). Because he’s a cinnamon roll, Steven accepts Ronaldo, arguing that the Crystal Gems value embracing their differences and accepting who they are.

“And besides, isn’t it great that someone is actually interested in who we are what we do?”—strikethrough ours (because that’s basically what Steven is saying)

So, this marginalized community makes space for Ronaldo. But his actions prove he’s more concerned with feeling accepted by them than about studying about or learning from them. He thinks being an ally means he has access to all the community spaces, and gets upset when he’s told he’s not allowed. Rather than ask Steven details about the mission or how he could train, he fixates on feeling left out. He seeks validation and inclusion by putting himself down. When that fails to get a response, he shames Steven for not showing off his queer identity gem the way a real Crystal Gem would.

He believes he knows better than Steven what makes a gem (like not sleeping) and has the right to determine who belongs in the group or not. In short, he wants all the benefits of being a part of the Crystal Gems—a weapon, a gem, going on missions—without having to do any actual work or understanding his limitations.

What Ronaldo fails to understand is that being a Crystal Gem ≠ being a Gem. Having a physical gem or a body made of light doesn’t make someone a Crystal Gem. Just look at Connie. Like Ronaldo, she’s organic and lacks a gem. But, she understands she’s different; she knows her limitations as a human fighting the kinds of monsters the Crystal Gems take on. And, she makes allowances for it and trains so that she can be an asset to them in her own unique way. Being a Gem, or half Gem, is an identity. Being a Crystal Gem, a hero who fights gem monsters and shares feelings, is a choice.

And that brings us back to the discussion of queer spaces and ally-ship. Because being queer is not a choice, but being an ally is. And there are helpful and unhelpful ways to engage with the queer community as an ally. Ronaldo typifies many of the latter with his entitlement, self-centeredness, gatekeeping, and shaming. He thinks being misunderstood makes him cool, special, and unique, things that Ronaldo desperately wants to be true about himself.

Nowhere is this better displayed in his admonishment to Steven to make his gem visible because, “If I had a gem, I’d want to show it of, like, all the time.” How many times have those of us in the queer community heard “be out! be proud! don’t hide!” or “you’re not really proud of being queer unless you’re 100% out and visible to everyone”? That’s not to mention the familiar experience either correcting allies on terminology (“that’s offensive”) and having them assume they can impose their own (“a gempon, that’s gem weapon”).

In the end, Ronaldo still doesn’t fully understand how to be an ally. He didn’t see Steven for three weeks after the falling out, which feels like a long time to us in a small town like Beach City. Was he avoiding Steven on purpose? He apologized for his behavior (yay!), but in a way that continued to make it about himself (boo!). Still, he took a step forward in the choice to spread positive information about the Crystal Gems instead of spouting misinformation. He asked Steven genuine questions and asked if he could share that information. When Steven declines, Ronaldo respects his choice. Hey may not be the best ally, but he’s learning!

While specifically about the queer community, many of the situations presented in this episode overlap with experiences elsewhere. Take Steven and Ronaldo’s first conversation, sounds a lot like conversations regarding other communities that face prejudice. We’ve all heard them: “All Muslims are bad, but not you, you’re one of the good ones”; “Latin folks are scary and want to steal our jobs. Oh, not you, you’re nice”; “I know you work hard, unlike those other poor people who are lazy and looking for hand outs”. Being the token *insert marginalized community here* friend sometimes means that you become the exception to the stereotype rather than proof that its wrong.

Likewise, Steven’s response represents a common experience within marginalized communities: that of being tasked with undermining the stereotype. Faced with Ronaldo’s prejudice, Steven takes it upon himself to point out that every stereotype Ronaldo has about rock people apply to not just the Crystal Gems, but himself. He’s personalizing the community for Ronaldo, giving it a human, err half-human, face that Ronaldo can empathize with. Way to go combating xenophobia, Steven!

Ronaldo’s objection to Connie joining the Crystal Gems—because she’s Steven’s girlfriend—echoes in many women’s experiences of fandom and nerd culture. He’s gatekeeping, deciding who gets in or out based on arbitrary definitions that he believes himself the adjudicator of.

The same can be said for Ronaldo’s attempts to mansplain what being a gem is ‘really’ about to Steven and the accusation that Steven’s lack of acceptance makes him less of a Crystal Gem than Ronaldo is.

Steven: “Who are you to tell anyone how to be a Crystal Gem? You’re just, you’re just, you’re just a guy with a blog!”

Ronaldo: “Is that love, is that acceptance? Maybe you’re the one that isn’t a Crystal Gem. I think you need to leave and think about stuff.”

Again, this discussion has specific application to problematic ally-ship in queer spaces. At the same time, we’ve also heard dialogue like this in other communities. Just replace Crystal Gem with Real FanTM or Real FeministTM or Real ProgressiveTM … you get the idea.

Ronaldo was picked for an episode like this for a reason. Behavior like this usually occurs for the reasons which we’ve seen with Ronaldo over and over; a need for validation about a person’s self-worth and importance. “Rocknaldo” was very much an episode focused on assuming ownership of a cause for your own validation, and why that is so harmful an attitude to take.

We like the guy, but his entire character centers on this need for validation. It is common to see those who think themselves outsiders seek the company of other outsiders, and they will often find those outsiders in oppressed communities. Only once they receive acceptance, they will act as Ronaldo does here, by seeking control of such communities, to the point of lecturing where they, frankly, have no room to do so.

We also learn a valuable lesson about the limits of acceptance. Steven’s refusal to accept Ronaldo’s shaming and judgment marks an important level of growth for our hero. He productively confronts his feelings (like he did about his mom last episode) and breaks out of his guilt cycle far sooner than he used to. When he confronts Ronaldo, he explains himself clearly, takes ownership of his hurtful actions (snapping at him), and clarifies what was problematic about Ronaldo’s behavior and why. *sniff* Our little Steven is growing up and being an assertive person!

Though not explicit in the episode, the idea that a few bad eggs don’t define the whole group is an underlying message, especially with the opening conversation. Gems as a whole are not a menace to Beach City; a few, specific gems are using a rigid and oppressive class system to menace Earth for specific reasons. A timely message as a potential battle between the Diamonds and the Crystal Gems looms over the narrative.

Images Courtesy of Cartoon Network

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