Steven Universe Rewind – Shirt Club

Spoiler Policy: All spoilers up to and including the currently discussed episode will be unmarked. Spoilers for episodes beyond the current point will be enclosed in Fast Forward blocks, which will include spoilers for the entire series.

Official Description: Steven and Buck Dewey make t-shirts together.

Steven’s little pencil case here is so cute and such a blast from the past! And yes, I’m opening this recap by talking about school supplies. Steven is using said school supplies — which I guess aren’t technically for school in his case — to draw a picture of his dad.

Steven yells for the Gems, who are literally sitting around right here, assembling what looks to be some stools from IKEA.

I was planning to make a trip out to IKEA to get some furniture I need… last month. I miss being able to run out to an IKEA. I want some Swedish meatballs and cheap kitchen crap.

Anyway.

Future Vision

This episode originally aired after The Return / Jail Break. It makes it awkward because Amethyst and Garnet are wearing their pre-regeneration outfits. It’s also a bit awkward from a story standpoint that Steven is so concerned with a minor issue and the Gems are sitting around assembling furniture directly after those events. In fact, this episode is a bit like an early S1 episode in style.

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Steven shows off his masterpiece — a flyer to advertise guitar lessons Greg is offering. This picture really reminds me of something Strong Bad would make, personally.

The Gems are not very impressed. When Steven says he drew lightning bolts all over it to show how his dad rocks, Garnet comments “there should be rocks falling out of the guitar.”

“I hear what you’re saying, but it’s too late for notes. This is permanent marker.”

Steven heads to the Big Donut to tape up the flyers he’s made. Sadie is mildly interested, but Lars isn’t paying attention at all until Buck Dewey comes in, at which point he immediately takes off his headphones and offers to get him a donut. Lars is still hung up on impressing the Cool Kids, of course.

I just took a few shots of the menu board because it’s amusing. A combo of two donuts is inexplicably more expensive than buying those donuts separately or purchasing a triple. Eight donuts is called a “breakup” — is that supposed to be the amount of donuts you inhale after a breakup?

Buck asks for a caprese salad, and Lars runs to the back to see if he can make one, followed by Sadie protesting that they don’t even have vegetables.

Buck asks about the Guitar Dad flyer. Steven offers him one, deciding to just tape it on his shirt, causing Buck to start laughing. He tells Steven this would make a rad shirt and offers to make the drawing into a t-shirt, which Steven eagerly accepts.

The crumbling warehouse from Tiger Millionaire and Alone Together is now the site of Mayor Dewey’s re-election campaign headquarters. The “Read My Lips – No New Faxes” banners are a reference to George H.W. Bush’s infamous campaign soundbite that came back to haunt him after he did, in fact, agree to raise taxes (although the reality was a bit more complicated than that).

Mayor Dewey is thrilled that his son has come to help him with his campaign. Buck denies him, saying that he and Steven have come to make Art. Steven is thrilled with this idea.

“Art, huh? I don’t understand it myself, but a boy’s gotta have interests and ambitions!” Mayor Dewey has been a pretty one-dimensional character up until now but his slightly desperate attempts to reconnect with his son here give him a bit of depth. He’s not upset that Buck is interested in making art and not politics, and is trying to be supportive anyway.

Mayor Dewey offers the use of the screen-printing equipment he has from years of campaigning, showing the boys an example of a banner he made to commemorate a new bench. (I like this gag, which reminds me a lot of the Arrested Development running gag with the banners.)

Steven praises the Mayor’s thrift, but Buck is embarrassed — doubly so when Dewey says he’s “gotta gank that youth vote, boi!”

Steven finds a box of old flyers with a crude drawing and the slogan “Vote for my dad,” obviously made by Buck when he was a child. Mayor Dewey tears up and becomes sentimental at the sight, remembering when Buck drew this and “couldn’t wait to show it off to all [his] little Montessori friends.”

I don’t know a whole lot about Montessori schools, not having a child myself, but the fact that they’re known for allowing children more freedom than traditional public schools probably ties into Buck’s love of free living.

Steven, who loves his dad sincerely and is rarely afraid to wear his heart on the sleeve, of course thinks the flyers are so cool. (I’m also thinking of Connie pointing out last week that he loves schmaltz.) Buck pushes his dad out of the warehouse and crumples up one of the flyers in shame.

Most of the tension in this episode derives from the clash between Steven’s empathy and sincerity and Buck’s very teenagerish ironic detachment. This plotline, especially with how it ties into how art is used and perceived, feels very meta, as the show Steven Universe is itself filled with sincerity and the message is about love and acceptance. This sometimes draws criticism from people who wish for darker plotlines, villains that are not so easy to redeem, and the like. This is very much a show about being in touch with and expressing your feelings, in a way that may seem a little corny at times. I find the message of this episode a bit muddled, but the idea that it’s never uncool for parents and children to love and support each other is pretty clear.

There’s a short montage of Steven and Buck making the shirts, with Steven obviously seeking out Buck’s approval by posing and giving a thumbs up, both of which are ignored. Steven has much better self-esteem than Lars and isn’t so desperate for approval, but it’s pretty clear he still values it. Finally, once the shirts are finished, Buck smiles and declares them to be “swag.”

Steven is excited to hand the shirts out, but Buck says he wants to be “controversial” and “create – boom! a scene.”

Steven and Buck perch at the top of the Arcade. Buck has the t-shirt cannon that Steven found in Greg’s storage unit back in Laser Light Cannon. They spot their first target, Sour Cream, who is talking into his phone, seemingly in the same language Yellowtail and Onion use. They aim and fire. Sour Cream unrolls the shirt and declares it “the coolest thing I’ve ever been hit in the head with.”

Their next target is Ronaldo, who thinks the shirt is “some kind of extraterrestrial space dad guitar shirt” that came from aliens trying to make first contact.

Future Vision

In next week’s Story for Steven we see that Greg’s stage persona was centered around space and aliens, so Ronaldo really isn’t so far off here!

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They shoot Lars with a shirt, who declares it to be garbage until he looks up and sees that Buck made it, at which point he immediately approves.

At Fish Stew Pizza, Steven and Buck share a couple of slices. “This’ll make my dad so happy. I can’t wait to see the look on his face when I stop by later,” says Steven.

“Yeah, should be good for a laugh,” says Buck, which Steven doesn’t understand. He’s such a pure heart that the idea that Buck is mocking him or Greg doesn’t even occur to him.

Jenny enters the shop wearing one of the Guitar Dad shirts, and talking to Kiki about how funny it is. Steven is starting to get worried that people think it’s a joke. “The only thing that’s important is that people are talking about it. That’s how real art works,” says Buck.

This incredibly cynical view of art and entertainment is no doubt one that the Crewniverse has encountered many times before and is likely frustrated with. Particularly in modern social media culture, the idea that the “value” of art is only found in how many clicks, likes and comments it gets drives a lot of frustrating trends, like stirring up cheap controversy for eyeballs. This attitude also manifests in many subtler ways. For example, the choice to move this episode’s airing date in order to create a Stevenbomb viewing event to drive up ratings — perhaps a decision that was good for the show’s popularity, but it also throws off the pacing created by the showrunners and introduces some minor continuity issues.

I think every creative person who decides to put their work before an audience, no matter how small, is likely to have these sorts of moments where they need to decide if they’re willing to compromise or make changes to try to boost popularity. There’s a line of thought that this always makes a work worse by compromising the artist’s original vision, but I think that it’s a lot more complicated than that. There are certainly examples of when changing a work in response to popular opinion has actually made it better. Not only that, but sometimes the simple calculus of making a change you’re willing to live with in order to substantially increase your audience can sometimes pay off very well. It’s a complex question with no one right answer.

Steven arrives at the car wash, where Sour Cream is taking a picture of Greg and laughing. When Greg offers to give him a guitar lesson, he walks off. Jenny drives by in her pizza delivery car, shouting at Greg that he’s hilarious before driving off.

Greg tells Steven that his t-shirts are causing lots of people to come by the car wash, but none of them have wanted to take a lesson, surprising Steven. Greg, like Steven, is also very sincere in his feelings, so it makes sense that it would take him a while to catch on to what’s happening too.

The Cool Kids are a little meaner in this episode than they are in pretty much any other, but it seems like they think what they’re doing is pretty harmless (with the exception of Buck, who does come around.)

Steven runs back to the warehouse, distressed that the shirts aren’t working because nobody wants guitar lessons from his dad. Buck says that’s not the point — the point is that it’s an amazing shirt. Steven blushes: “Aww, my drawing’s not that good.”

Buck: “Yeah, no. It’s terrible. That’s what’s so great about it. Your work is so naive. You really love your dad. It’s funny.”

This is one of the bluntest calling-outs of Steven’s sincerity in the entire show. Steven literally does not know what to make of it, because at this point he genuinely can’t understand not simply loving your parents. This is also probably part of why he never seems to fully grasp Connie’s conflict with her mother. This episode also comes in a season filled with episodes dealing with parental figures being imperfect or letting you down: The Test, Rose’s Scabbard, House Guest, Fusion Cuisine and more. In all of those episodes, Steven reconciles with his dad or the Gems.

Future Vision

As Steven grows into his teenager years himself, his relationship with his parents will become a lot more complicated — he discovers Rose’s dark past, he becomes increasingly involved with the Crystal Gems’ personal failings, and finally, he loses his faith in his father and questions his upbringing. In true Steven Universe fashion, of course, he still loves his family, which is shown in the very final episode.

In the intended viewing order, we’re only a couple of episodes away from one of Steven’s most naive-on-the-surface moments: when he wonders if Peridot might learn to love the Earth if people are nice to her. He turns out to be vindicated, of course — it’s only later that this attitude starts to cause major problems for him.

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Steven tells Buck he doesn’t want to make the shirts any more. Buck dramatically declares: “I’m a tastemaker, and I’m going to keep making tastes… forever.”

Steven runs into the beach house in a panic, yelling that they need to stop Buck from making shirts and destroying the ones he made. You can see that the Gems have only successfully assembled one of the three stools they were working on earlier, the other two ending up in less than useful states.

“Have the shirts come to life and possessed the bodies of their wearers?” asks Pearl, possibly a reference to the events of Frybo.

“Are people catching on fire when they put on the magic shirts?” asks Amethyst, which could be a reference to Lars spraying fire everywhere as a result of the fire salt prank in Joking Victim.

Pearl has hilarious crazy eyes as she asks, “Are the shirts destroying the wearer’s will to continue on in this mortal coil, thereby shutting down Beach City?!” Gotta wonder where this idea comes from.

“No, they’re just using my art in a way I don’t agree with,” says Steven, prompting the Gems to sit back down, disinterested.

It’s interesting to note that unlike many real-world examples of art being used in a way the artist doesn’t agree with, it’s not being used to promote any kind of ideology, advertise a product, or anything like that. In fact, Buck is using the art exactly in a way Steven agreed to — he put it on t-shirts and distributed them in Beach City. Steven’s problem is actually with how people are interpreting the art — as a joke instead of as a real advertisement — which is a lot more nebulous. Once your art is out in the world, you can’t police how people interpret it, even if it’s very different from what you intended. I’m sure the Crewniverse have encountered this problem many times — of course, it’s happened to Steven Universe itself, where critics have read things into the show that the artists don’t agree with. Honestly, I think that in this kind of case all you can really do is take a long hard look at your work and see if there’s some merit to the alternative view. Sometimes the critic in question really is entirely off-base or has missed important nuance; other times, it’s possible for someone to point out something about your art that you yourself did not see. In this case, Buck’s observation that Steven’s naive art is crude and funny is not really incorrect, just rude.

Pearl says that this sounds like a very abstract problem and encourages him to dust off his conflict resolution skills, which is kind of rich coming from her considering Steven had to talk her down from a massive conflict just a few episodes ago. Amethyst and Garnet also encourage him to help himself in a way that sounds like they really just don’t care. This is pretty consistent with their behavior in episodes like Beach Party, where human problems simply don’t interest the Gems at all, even if they’re bothering Steven.

It’s a good example of how the Gems love Steven but aren’t always the best caretakers. Even if they don’t personally care about non-magical happenings in Beach City, they basically invalidate Steven’s concerns, such as being banned from the pizza shop or having teenagers mock his art. These kinds of things seem inconsequential to Gems but are understandably very important to a developing child. Their failure to be there for him will cause consequences later on.

Steven thinks about what to do and mutters darkly, “I’ll make them understand…”

Meanwhile, Mayor Dewey is holding the commemoration ceremony for the new bench. In a very dark joke, Steven is on the roof of the arcade in a structure that resembles a clock tower. He pulls the t-shirt cannon from a guitar case and points it at Mayor Dewey.

As the t-shirt fires at the Mayor in slow-motion, his two bodyguards heroically spot it and run away. It hits Mayor Dewey square in the chest: “I’ve been… shirt!”

Steven fires more shirts into the crowd. Buck picks one up and sees that they’re all printed with his “Vote for My Dad” drawing from childhood. Sour Cream, Jenny, and Lars are all laughing at them. Mayor Dewey, however, is touched and asks Buck if he made this. Buck sheds a single tear.

Steven taking revenge like this is pretty unusual for him. On the other hand, Steven getting revenge by revealing a teenager’s childhood love for his dad is a very Steven-y revenge.

One thing that’s kind of interesting about this episode is that we never actually learn what caused the rift between Mayor Dewey and Buck. Dewey genuinely seems to be trying to reach his son — they could have easily made him aloof, or pressuring his son into a career in politics he didn’t want, but neither seems to be true. Did Dewey inadvertently drive his son away somehow? Is this just a phase Buck is going through where he can’t express his feelings and finds his dad embarrassing, like many teenagers?

At the car wash, Steven gives his dad the last of the Guitar Dad t-shirts. Buck arrives, and awkwardly apologizes for what he did, which Steven accepts. Buck then asks if he can have a guitar lesson from Guitar Dad, showing off his t-shirt.

There’s an undercurrent here that Buck’s actions stem a bit from jealousy over how Steven loves his dad uncritically and is unafraid to show it. Steven Universe very frequently takes the stance that being open about your feelings is a sign of bravery and strength — in particular, pushing back on notions driven by toxic masculinity that feelings are a sign of weakness.

This isn’t one of the strongest episodes of the show, but it fits in well thematically where it’s placed in the original episode order and builds on some of the threads from previous episodes.

Next time on Steven Universe Rewind! We’ll learn a lot more about Rose Quartz, Greg, and their relationship in Story for Steven.