Thursday, June 20, 2024

The Zoo Digs Into Free Will and Consent

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How is the latest Steven Bomb nearly over already? We’re not ready! Steven Universe is too good to leave us now! And if you think we had good things to say about the first three episodes, we’ll probably sound obnoxiously complementary about the last two episodes. In true Steven Universe fashion, the best has been saved for last. This one in particular got not only our attention, but many of the Steven Universe fans here at The Fandomentals. Anyone who knows us will probably realize why.

So get ready, folks, because Bo and Gretchen have fused into Betchen, and we have a whole lot of themes to get to in today’s episode, “The Zoo”.

Spoilers for 4×14 “The Zoo” below. You have been warned.

“The Zoo”

The episode begins where “Gem Heist” left off: with Steven reuniting with his dad in the human zoo. And it doesn’t seem all that scary? It’s basically a tropical paradise, which is not what we, or Steven, expected from how Pearl described it. Which makes us wonder about how it may have changed over the years.

Holly Blue mentioned in “Gem Heist” how the zoo’s treatment of the captive humans evolved over the years to suit human needs. However peaceful things look now, this zoo had to be much worse for those kept hostage in its early days. What we see now is a product of many, many generations who lived and died solely within this zoo and know nothing else. Many might see this utopia and assume Pearl lied or gave viewers a hostile, biased view of the zoo. They’ll think Pink Diamond loved her captive humans and treated them the way we see them now. And maybe she did, but keep in mind that Pearl is thinking of the zoo 5,000 years ago when Holly Blue admits the humans brought there resisted.

Back to our regularly scheduled programming. Steven tells his dad that they came to rescue him and need to bust out. He tries to find the chute that brought him to containment, but Greg says he’s already tried to get out that way. Steven tries to tell him about the service door, but a pair of zoomans (as Greg calls them) interrupt. Steven starts to fight them off, but Greg holds him back. Greg, or as the others call him Ga-reg, introduces Steven to the rest of the zoomans.

Greg actually seems pretty chill here with the zoomans, which makes us wonder how much time has passed since he got there. (Faster than light travel messes with timelines, yo, just ask Ender.) Anyway, the zoomans seem really nice, if a bit like a cult. Greg says they’ve treated him well and is proud to show off his son to the rest of the commune. Side note: Gretchen wants to know if they understand what ‘son’ means. How does birth work in this enclosure? Do the gems understand human familial structures? What about human birth? Why don’t we see more babies and children in the group? Are they raised elsewhere? Do babies come in cycles? Is she overthinking this whole thing? Probably. But she needs to know these things. (Come on Crewniverse, don’t leave her hanging!).

How is this possible after 5000 years and inbreeding?

Steven (Ste-von in zooman) meets a smiling group of racially diverse zoomans who have never seen the Earth but still speak mostly perfect English. Gretchen apologizes for pointing this out. She can’t help it. Bo tries not to think about it, or every Gem speaking perfect English as well. Greg has told them all about Steven, including his preference for fry bits from the Pilot episode, so they all start chanting “the bits! the bits!”. Is it a bit weird? Yeah, but Greg looks so proud of Steven in that moment that we can’t help but find it adorable. This weirds Steven out, and wants to get out of there, so he tells Greg about the door. Greg says they can find it tonight after ‘the routine’.

‘The routine’ it turns out, is a series of suggestions given to the zoomans via their earrings by a pleasant sounding female voice. We want to know who she is. Is this some super-advanced recording Pink Diamond made that can adjust itself when people disobey? The voice tells them when to eat, bathe, sleep, and play. It puts a rather ominous spin on what Holly Blue Agate said last episode about “giving the zoomans what they need”. Does she think they just need someone to tell them what to do? Not all that surprising, since the gems think of the humans like animals. Still, it’s chilling.

Also? Both Y-6 and J-10 totes have the hots for Greg and are vying for his attention throughout. We love the casual queer subtext. And is it just us or do the zooman names sound like specimen names?

Steven agonizes over how happy the zoomans are, acting as if they don’t know they’re trapped. Greg replies that they don’t. They’ve never known anything else and their home is a beautiful paradise where all their physical needs are met. Why wouldn’t they be unhappy? And if this sounds suspiciously like arguments in favor of other forms of human imprisonment and forced labor, we’re pretty sure that’s not an accident (and we’ll talk more about it later on). Steven reluctantly agrees with Greg, but you can tell he’s still skeptical.

“Night” falls (in other words, the yellow disk of the ‘sun’ turns into a moon and the lights go off), so everyone heads off to sleep. Greg and Steven make for the service door. Steven goes Ruby on that thing by trying and punch it open. Because that worked so well last time.

So helpful.

Y-6 and J-10 pop up (do they follow Greg everywhere?) because of the noise. Steven explains they need to open the door, and what exactly a door is. We then learn from J-10 that a long time ago, a gem came through a ‘wall-opening’ to help a hurt human. The zoomans are confused by this concept of “hurt”. Steven explains it to them, and decides the best way out is…for Greg to punch him. Greg offers to take one for the team instead, so as not to hit Steven (thank you, Greg). Steven’s first punch fails adorably (he can’t reach Greg’s face), but his second one knocks the wind right out of Greg. And knocks him back several feet. Should we be worried for Greg’s internal organs? Steven is half-gem after all.

No gems come to rescue Greg, but their disappointed is interrupted by the little voice telling them it is time for “The Choosening.” Buckle up folks, this is where we get all themes and shit on you. The Choosening is, as Greg calls it, a matchmaking ritual. The voice pairs up humans, presumably for reproductive purposes, but we don’t actually know what happens next because Greg stops the whole thing just as the voice has paired him with J-10. Planned matches of zoomans certainly explains maintaining genetic diversity, though.

Unlike Steven—who voiced his discomfort over being told what to do early on—Greg was okay being told when to eat and bathe and sleep. We love the guy but he’s a bit of a slacker. But this is one step too far. No one will tell him who to be with. Being in a relationship is a personal decision, a choice. As Steven puts it:

“They spent time getting to know one another and fell in love. They choosened each other because that’s what they choosed.”

The nature of relationships is an ongoing theme in Steven Universe with fusion being the prime metaphor. But the show has also tackled one sided interest and the ‘let’s be friends’ talk (2×04 “Love Letters”), moving on after a loved one has died, the necessity of good communication, how to end a destructive relationship, and coping with jealousy, deceit, manipulation, and mistrust. This is yet one more piece of that thematic arc, with the emphasis being personal choice. No one ought to dictate relationships for you, it’s a choice you make for yourself.

On the flip side is the necessity of consent, which “The Choosening” scene doesn’t fail to touch on. When Greg and Steven explain choice to the zoomans, they immediately choose Greg. All of them. As they crowd around him, Greg screams, “Wait! I get a say in this, too!”. Because that’s the flip side to choice. It is not enough for you to choose someone; they must consent (you’d be surprised how alien this part of consent seems to be on TV). The other person has a choice, too. And they can choose ‘not you’, which is what Greg does. Makes you wonder just how long it took the keepers of this zoo to condition natural free choice out of the zoomans so they don’t go around impregnating each other after puberty.

We also have to point out all the little details that Rebecca Sugar and the Crewniverse included. All of the people we see around the circle are adult aged, and Y-6 specifically tells Steven to wait, implying he’s too young. Hot damn that’s age of consent right there. Then you have the not so subtle queer and poly vibes in the fact that not only do both men and women choose Greg, they all do. At once. And they seem perfectly fine with this. The only person not fine with the situation is Greg, but that’s because he doesn’t want to be in a relationship with any of them.

This leads to lots of tears, and some torn clothing. Also lots of snot. The Crewniverse definitely doesn’t shy away from going ‘full snot‘ when characters cry. It’s not the worst way to learn what ‘hurt’ is, but still very painful for humans who have zero concept of pain or grief. Greg’s quip about breaking hearts aside, there’s a whole lot of symbolism happening here. We talked about it a bit in our initial reaction post, but now we can dive in fully.

We pointed out the visual similarity between the zoomans reaching out in their pain and the Cluster. It’s a recognizable gesture as a plea for help. All of the beings pictured in the image at left are, at the end of the day, in pain. The Cluster and gem mutants are literal broken pieces of gems forced into fusions (relationships) with each other immediately afterward. They want to be their whole selves again and lash out blindly because they have no concept of how to exist as fragments. In other words, they want to heal from their pain. Sound familiar? It’s what the zoomans do. They’re brokenhearted. They flail about blindly in their hurt because they’ve never been taught how to cope with their pain. Heck, they’ve never even felt emotional pain.

All that to say there’s no way this symbolism is unintentional. “Gem Drill” (3×02) showed us that the Cluster is not a weapon, but fragments of gems that used to be whole beings. They’re hurting. They’re confused and lashing out. But deep down, they’re trying to cope with their pain. The zoomans give us yet another glimpse into the situation, which can’t be an accident in a bomb where Blue has already mentioned the Cluster. The Diamonds see a geoweapon. Steven, and the audience, see hurting beings, like the zoomans.

Alright, we’re done with themes, for now. Told you we had a lot to say #sorrynotsorry. Steven choosens to take Greg and run away. One George of the Jungle joke later, a squad of Amethyst guards stream through the service door to comfort the sobbing zoomans. They’re remarkably empathetic actually. They don’t seem to think of the humans as lesser beings the way jerkface Holly Blue does. Steven and Greg book it for the open service door only to be caught by an Amethyst guard with a zit gem on her face. They’re in big trouble, now. Oh no!

Delightful Little Gems

  • The bathing scene reminds us of the mermaid scene in Disney’s Peter Pan only with less jerky mermaids and more creepdorable zoomans.

Lingering Questions

  • Trying to figure out the interior architecture of the zoo is making our head hurt. Steven seemed to go straight down the chute but ends up on the bottom of the lake?
  • How did the human from ‘long ago’ get hurt? Will we ever hear this story? We have a theory that Rose comforted this human and that incident planted the idea of helping Earth.
  • Are there other containment areas? If this is the only one, why is the population so seemingly small? Where are the children (there’s only one on screen)? How long do zoomans live? Give us more lore!!

Closing Thoughts

We thought you might like to see some casual flirting from Y-6.

Unlike the previous three episodes, “The Zoo” focused far more on themes than lore, though we do still have a lot of questions about the zoo itself. We love how this brief episode was able to explain how relationships involve both choice and consent. And to bring in age of consent and normalization of queer and poly relationships to boot? It’s majorly impressive, especially for a kids show. It exposes young minds to these concepts in a way that normalizes all kinds of relationship choices while also empowering kids to make choices, accept rejection, and understand that relationships require both people to agree to it. And trust us, these kids get it.

We appreciate the care given to distinguish relationships from the other things the zoomans look to the little voices for direction for. Steven only begrudgingly follows the voice’s orders, even outright questioning it. “What if I don’t want to smell the flowers?” Greg, on the other hand, seems content to play along. It’s not hurting anyone, after all. But Greg drew the line at being told who to love. That is up to him and no one else. The message is clear: some dictates are perfectly fine to follow. But who you can or should be in a relationship with isn’t one of them. Only the choice and consent of the two people actually in the relationship matters.

There is one final thematic element we’d like to touch on that we didn’t mention above: the potential paralleling of the lower caste gems and the zoomans. Holly Blue treats her underlings with barely more dignity than the human ‘specimens’, and probably even less. The zoomans are little more than curiosities in Pink’s menagerie; they’re display items that highlight her Diamond’s ineffable mercy and compassion. They’re animals to care and provide for, not sentient beings with independent choice.

The Earth gems, on the other hand, while they have personhood are repeatedly derided and dehumanized. Holly Blue physically and verbally abuses them. Pearl has to put up with Holly Blue’s passive aggressive quips at her intelligence, work ethic, and even her very existence. She’s an ornament to Holly Blue, and a rather stupid one at that. (But we know better.)

Both classes of beings are consistently treated as inferior, if with varying levels of antagonism. Even their names set them apart. Almost every Homeworld underling gem we’ve met has gone by their facet name—Jasper being the main exception, which is yet another point of uniqueness to her situation. Only the higher caste gems get what we’d call names: the Diamonds, who call each other Pink, Blue, and Yellow, and Holly Blue herself, who is never once called “Agate” despite that being her gem. Likewise, the zoomans go by what seem to be specimen names: Y-6, J-10, F-3, U-12. They’re one in a series rather than individuals, just like the facet names for the lower caste gems. We don’t know what it means yet, so for now, it’s food for thought.

So, here we are. 4 episodes down and already missing Steven Universe. Tomorrow we talk the final episode of this bomb, “That Will Be All.” Then it’s hiatus time yet again.

But wait! Good news, everyone! Starting February 10th Steven Universe returns to a weekly schedule and you can bet we’ll be here to cover it all. We do like the bombs, but it will be nice to return to a regular schedule. If nothing else it gives us more time to dig into these episodes. As you can see with our reviews this week, we hardly run out of things to say about Steven Universe. We hope to see you tomorrow, and hope you’ll stick around as we continue coverage of one of the best shows on TV.

Betchen out.

Images Courtesy of Cartoon Network

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