An Ode to Lauren Zuke
By: F. Alexander Bonilla-Chacon
Lauren Zuke began their career in a dream scenario for most fan artists; after an opening caused by the departure of storyboarder Hellen Jo in 2014, Steven Universe showrunner Rebecca Sugar hired Zuke on to replace her. Since their first credited episode aired in June of 2015, Zuke has made waves for several reasons among Steven Universe fans, rendering them one of the more recognizable names on the crew. That ride is coming to an end soon, as after months of Internet speculation caused by their social media blackout, they have finally stated on their Tumblr that they are no longer working with the show and that there are only “four or five” more episodes on which they participated that have yet to air. While it may seem early to start a eulogy for Zuke, this announcement and the Friday airing of “Room For Ruby”, an episode they worked on, provide a good opportunity to reflect on what effects Zuke has had on the show and its fans.
Zuke’s first assigned episode was “Chille Tid”, which came at an interesting point in Season 2 of the show. We were a couple of episodes removed from the landmark moment of “The Return/Jailbreak”, which is famous for revealing Garnet as a fusion (and providing an overtly gay scene that we’ll get back to later), as well as introducing our later star villain, Jasper. However, somewhat lost in the shuffle was the escape of Peridot, who up to that point was but a begrudging Kindergarten technician who was in over her head. Thanks in large part to Zuke, Peridot was developed grandly from her role as a lesser villain into one of the most fun redemption stories in animation.
Zuke’s third episode was “Catch and Release”, which gave us our first real look at Peridot as a vulnerable creature as opposed to the somewhat trope-y Saturday morning villain portrayed in previous episodes such as “Keeping It Together” and “Cry For Help”. Little moments like Peridot’s cluelessness about a “shirt” and her defense with a plunger gave us great laughs that Zuke would later be known for, while her clutching onto her prosthetic foot and her fear of what she perceives to be a weapon gave us a look into other layers of Peridot hinted upon in the past.
This carries over into “Too Far” and “Log Date 7 15 2”, the other Season 2 episodes Zuke worked on after “Catch and Release”. Zuke (along with their storyboarding partner Hilary Florido) did a great job in giving Peridot many lines, while expertly showing her absorbing the lessons of empathy imparted by Steven. Because of all this foundation, we buy more into her crucial decisions in “Message Received” and “Gem Drill”. Peridot was often praised as the breakout character of Season 2, and Zuke had a large hand in crafting her arc from a trapped villain to a Gem who gradually understood the true value of life.
Lapidot, Amedot, and LGBT Representation
Zuke is proudly queer on social media, and made some waves in the fandom when they admitted to writing Peridot, Lapis Lazuli and Amethyst as queer characters in a Tumblr post in January of this year. Whether or not you agree with the decision, you can’t deny that it’s had a visible influence on the show. The Amethyst-Peridot ship, commonly referred to as Amedot, was first visible in “Too Far”, and advanced further in the Season 3 episode “Too Short to Ride”, and Zuke said in the aforementioned post that she wrote Amethyst and Peridot’s relationship as “the feeling of a ‘first time crush’ that you go on to then become intimate friends.”
Of course, the ship Zuke is most famous for is the one developed between Lapis Lazuli and Peridot, known in the SU fandom as Lapidot. Zuke was a vocal Lapidot shipper throughout their tenure, posting various fan arts of the relationship on their personal Tumblr, and explaining in the text post that they “wanted to create the experience of a growing queer relationship.” We first see this in “Barn Mates”, which also kicked off the Season 3 theme of Steven trying to mend relationship issues. By the end of the episode, Lapis blushing at Peridot’s joy is an earned climax given the emotional heft their actions were given throughout the 11 minutes. Because the show decided to wander away from the barn for a long time, we didn’t see the pair again until “Beta”, another Zuke-Florido episode, and the team did their best to show the development the Lapidot relationship had gotten off screen. Finally, by “Gem Harvest”, the two Gems had fully learned to work as a team.
Prior to Zuke’s arrival, the main sources of gay representation on the show were the undertones of the Pearl-Rose relationship laid out in “Rose’s Scabbard”, and the intimate embrace of Ruby and Sapphire in “Jailbreak”. However, with their introduction of Amedot and Lapidot, the show got decidedly more gay, to put it bluntly. Another contribution of theirs in this department was “Last One Out of Beach City”, where we see Pearl develop a very visible crush on a fellow female who we only know by the name of “Mystery Girl” currently. The fact that all of these relationships are portrayed as if they were any other courtship usually portrayed on television can be credited in part to the contributions of Zuke.
A Farewell to Lauren
All in all, the show will continue on being one of the funniest, most emotional and most progressive shows on television without Zuke, but fans of the show will miss their brand of self-deprecating humor, their unique floofy-haired drawing style, and their representation of queer relationships in a program on a nominal children’s network. “Room For Ruby” and its jokes about wishing on our solar system’s star, as well as continuing to deftly portray Lapis’ struggle with insecurity, gave us one of our final opportunities to cherish the effects Zuke has had on the past three seasons of the show. On behalf of all her fans, “Wow, thanks!”