The Wrestling Episode: ‘Steven Universe’ Gets Over As A Heel

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The Wrestling Episode is our cleverly-named feature wherein we watch non-wrestling shows with wrestling episodes and try to figure out what the hell’s going on in them. You’d be surprised how many there are. You can watch these episodes on Hulu here and here. If you have any suggestions on shows that need to be featured in The Wrestling Episode, let us know in our comments section below.

I’ve Never Heard Of Steven Universe. What is it?

It’s kind of a superhero show, kind of a sci-fi show, very much a coming-of-age story, and probably the gayest children’s cartoon ever made. (So far.)

Steven Universe is an adolescent boy whose father was a human, but his mother was a superheroic alien named Rose Quartz, the leader of the Crystal Gems. Steven inherited his late mother’s powers and is being raised and taught to use them by the other three Crystal Gems: Pearl, Garnet, and Amethyst.

Together they defend the world from monsters, while also dealing with the rulers of their home planet, who want them dead and still wouldn’t mind conquering the Earth. Pearl is over-protective and anxious, and still more than a little sad because she was in love with Rose Quartz. Garnet is powerful, level-headed, and usually soft-spoken. Amethyst is the youngest, and often rebellious and self-destructive.

All of these characters have secrets (especially Garnet), and there’s a lot of details I’m leaving out here. On the off chance that you haven’t watched Steven Universe, I’m not going to spoil it for you, because you really should.

Steven Universe is currently on hiatus and in the midst of its 5th Season. Cartoon Network can be a little unpredictable with when they air it, but in the meantime you can catch up on Hulu.

And There’s A Wrestling Episode?

Actually, there are two. “Tiger Millionaire” was the 9th episode of season one, and “Tiger Philanthropist” was the 18th episode of season four. Although they aired three years apart, they go together as a unit, and I’m going to talk about both of them. After all, Cartoon Network shows like this are half-length, so it’s the equivalent of one regular half-hour episode.

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“Tiger Millionaire” starts with Pearl yelling at Amethyst. Amethyst has been too reckless on a mission, and made a big mess. Garnet doesn’t say much, but she sides with Pearl. It’s clear that Amethyst hears this sort of thing often, and her response is basically that of a sullen teenager.

Later that night, Steven sees Amethyst slip out of the house and follows her. She goes to a big dilapidated warehouse on the edge of town, where Steven discovers she’s leading a secret double life as Purple Puma, the top heel of local indie promotion Beach City Underground Wrestling. Amethyst has shape-shifting powers, which enable her to take on a much larger and more muscular male form (complete with prodigious chest hair). Although Amethyst uses she/her pronouns, the Purple Puma uses he/him, and hopefully that won’t make the rest of this synopsis too confusing.

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One of Steven’s main things is getting super-excited about whatever his friends are up to, so naturally he immediately wants to wrestle too. Amethyst agrees, because Purple Puma has never won the Tag Team Championship, so they can be partners. That’s what leads Steven to create Tiger Millionaire, a wealthy heel from the coconut mines of Jungle Island with a complex backstory that Amethyst finds unnecessary. When Steven asks for Purple Puma’s backstory, she replies, “Pumas are cool.”

Tiger Millionaire’s debut leads to a montage where they face various teams on their way to tag team gold. Puma does most of the fighting, leaving Tiger in a more managerial position of standing outside the ropes and hitting opponents with various objects (or just offering them money to give up). Whereas Purple Puma just looks like a big purple cartoon wrestler and acts like Amethyst, Steven’s Tiger Millionaire persona contains references to a number of managers and wrestlers, including …

The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase

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Precious Paul Ellering

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Paul E. Dangerously

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Jim Cornette with a little bit of Roddy Piper thrown in.(Yes, he uses a tennis racket to hurl coconuts at people.)

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And maybe — dare I say it — a little bit of Tiger Mask.

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Does Steven Universe Understand How Wrestling Works?

I’m going to say yes, but with caveats. The emphasis throughout is on wrestling as a performance, not as a sport. There are moments where we see wrestlers in the ring figuring out what happens next and then doing it. Nobody ever pretends that it’s a shoot fight.

What’s missing is any sense of a booker or really anyone in charge. Mr. Smiley (a character who also runs the boardwalk arcade and amusement park) appears as the promotion’s announcer, but you kind of get the impression the wrestlers do whatever they want in the ring.

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A perfect example is the end of “Tiger Millionaire,” when Pearl and Garnet invade the ring during a ladder match for the Tag Team Titles, angry that Amethyst and Steven have been wrestling behind their backs and possibly using their Gem powers against regular humans. In the moment, they realize this is actually a good outlet for their younger teammates and that no harm is being done. Instead of leaving, they exaggerate their initial behavior to become ultimate invading heels who want to stop all the wrestling, and then sell their defeat at the hands of Purple Puma and Tiger Millionaire, who gain the love of the crowd and win the Titles.

“Tiger Millionaire” was written by Raven M. Molisee and Paul Villeco and directed by Kevin Dart, while “Tiger Philanthropist” was written by Lamar Abrams and Katie Mitroff and directed by Joe Johnston. Of those six people, plus the rest of the Steven Universe production team, I don’t know how many of them are pro wrestling fans. What I’m certain of is that somebody involved is. In addition to the various in-jokes involving Steven that I already covered, there’s a general awareness of how wrestling works, and what a small indie promotion like Beach City Underground would actually look like, as opposed to the stuff you see on TV.

But Are There Any Pitch-Perfect Parodies Of 1980s WCW Tag Team Aesthetics?

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Let me tell you about the Good Looking Gang. On the left is Dashing Danny Doober, and his partner on the right is Handsome Hank Hackleschmidt. They’re the Number One Contenders for the Tag Team Championship. I almost feel like I don’t need to explain how perfectly designed they are, because you’re looking at them and you can see it.

Dashing Danny wears blue gear and Handsome Hank wears red gear. Hank has body hair, but Danny clearly shaves. Danny is a full-lipped pretty boy while Hank has a lantern jaw and mustache. Despite all these differences, they’re still two big guys with mullets who are identical at first glance. Also, because this is Steven Universe, there are hints that they’re a couple (just look at Hank’s face in the picture), but that’s never played for laughs.

What About That Second Episode, “Tiger Philanthropist?”

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After Steven and Amethyst win the Tag Team Championship, and Pearl and Garnet decide it’s okay for them to keep wrestling, three years pass. Three real-world years, anyway. How long it is in show time is more nebulous. In any case, a bunch of stuff changes. I don’t want to get too deep into spoilers, but things happen that lead to Amethyst gaining far more self-confidence and no longer being the kind of loose cannon she was in Season One. It makes sense that she wouldn’t need the outlet that wrestling gave her. So after a victory, Purple Puma takes a mic and, to the surprise of everyone including his partner, retires from wrestling.

The crowd is angry, and Steven himself is upset. Amethyst was wrestling to provide a therapeutic outlet she no longer needs, but Steven just loved having fun with her. He attempts to revamp Tiger Millionaire into Tiger Philanthropist, a babyface solo wrestler who throws money into the crowd and has a move called the Small Business Loan Elbow. It’s all pretty fun, but things aren’t the same without Purple Puma.

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The voice of wrestling fans in this episode is provided by recurring sullen teenager character Lars Barriga. He’s mad when Tiger Millionaire leaves, unimpressed when he comes back with an altered gimmick, and eventually admits that he has no idea what he wants. That’s the other reason you can tell somebody involved is a wrestling fan: they’ve definitely had conversations with other wrestling fans.

How Does It End?

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Realizing things aren’t working out without his partner, Tiger Philanthropist announces that he’s vacating the Tag Team Championship (which apparently he somehow kept when his partner retired) and invites the other tag teams to fight each other for them in a ladder match. Just then Purple Puma returns, announcing on the mic that he’s not willing to let Tiger give up the titles without a fight (and then apologizing to Steven off-mic). With the crowd in a frenzy, the reunited team takes on not only the Good Looking Gang, but the Brothers Construction and Sharkomania.

As the heroic Handsome Hank and Dashing Danny stand over them, Tiger and Puma whisper in unison, “Finish it!” The Good Looking Gang hit their finisher, the Star-Crossed Lovers, and that’s it for our heelish heroes. The next great tag team wins the belts, and Steven and Amethyst leave wrestling as a team, putting the new top guys over on their way out.

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So What Have We Learned?

  • A modern cartoon can get more things right about wrestling in 12 minutes than most of the old shows this column has covered before can in 22 or 45.
  • Wrestling fans never know what they want, neither do teenage boys, and teenage boy wrestling fans are the worst of both worlds.
  • It’s okay to use your supernatural alien powers to fight humans as long as it’s a work.
  • Always — always — go out on your back.