Considering the fact that Cartoon Network was founded by a woman, it’s long overdue that they finally have a show created by a woman. Storyboard artist and songwriter, Rebecca Sugar, has set this animation landmark. She is a former artist and writer for Adventure Time, so she brings some of this same enthralling storytelling to her original show on Cartoon Network, Steven Universe. If you love quirky cartoons that appeal to adults and kids alike, similar to Adventure Time and Gravity Falls, you will fall in love with Steven Universe.
The premise revolves around a happy-go-lucky boy named Steven, and his guardians and mentors, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl; aka the Crystal Gems. Crystal Gems are basically alien protectors of the Universe with a magical girl influence. and the quartet get into all kinds of wacky misadventures on Earth and magical islands, dangerous temples, and outer space.
Doesn’t that sound fun? If you aren’t currently watching Steven Universe, you should probably watch it. It’s a hilarious well-written show with catchy musical numbers and episodes that tug on your heartstrings. If that’s not enough of a reason for you to tune in, you should also know that the show features great representation of gender and race that are much needed in children’s media. Here are some of the socially conscious highlights of Steven Universe.
Disclaimer: It’s important to point out that although the Crystal Gems are technically sexless, they have feminine gender presentation and use he/she pronouns and are thus read as female, however this genderless notion is still great representation for nonbinary individuals.
As fans of the show have pointed out Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl are pretty much mother figures to Steven because his own mom (Rose Quartz) had to relinquish her physical form to give birth to him. Steven looks up to many of the female characters of the series, especially his guardians. In fact his dad, Greg, is his closest male role model. Although Greg is a caring and understanding father, he is portrayed as not being as quick thinking and composed as the women. For once the female characters are shown to be the leaders and the man isn’t the all-encompassing hero like in most shows.
Steven admires Garnet’s strength and athleticism. He enjoys having fun and goofing off with Amethyst, the wild tomboy of the group, and he trusts Pearl to always know what to do in a tough situation. Then there is Steven’s best friend Connie, who is an intelligent young girl with a strong interest in books and movies.
Girls are often taught that they should find a man smarter than them and that men are intimidated by smart women. However, Connie is clearly the more intellectual one of the pair between her and Steven. Steven doesn’t mind this at all and seems to enjoy learning from Connie. This can be seen in his eagerness to read Connie’s favorite book series The Spirit Morph Saga. Connie’s passion for these books is relatable to the nerds in the audience and invokes the inner fangirl in us all.
Another noteworthy female character is Sadie, the sales clerk at Steven’s favorite donut shop. Sadie is a short heavyset girl with a crush on the tall thin boy, Lars. The conventionally beautiful thin woman paired with the fat man is a relationship that has been constantly overplayed throughout television history. We rarely see the reverse and Steven Universe provides this.
Sadie is kind and empathetic but also physically strong. In the episode Island Adventure, Sadie protects Lars and Steven from a beast with her bare hands. Sadie’s strength is evident in her thick arms and broad shoulders. She has a body type that’s underrepresented in the media. In fact, a wide variety of body types are represented in Steven Universe. Garnet is tall with wide hips, Amethyst is short and plump, Pearl is thin with a rectangular frame, and the villain Jasper is tall and muscular.
These women also all have very different body types, some of them are short, some are tall, some are thin, some are large. A lot of cartoons have one cookie-cutter body type for the female characters. Steven Universe shows us that animation can still be cartoony while also giving women realistic body types.
Characters of Color
Although the Crystal Gems are not human and technically don’t have races, they have skin tones and facial features that suggest that they can be read as people of color. This allows the viewers to interpret the gems in different ways. Some might read Pearl and Amethyst to be Asian, or Garnet to be black. People from all walks of life can identify with them. However a lot of the human characters are obviously of color. For example, Connie’s last name is Maheswaran, which is a Hindi surname. This lead to speculation that she is Southeast Asian and the writer Matt Burnett has confirmed that she is in fact Indian.
Although it might be helpful if Connie’s heritage was mentioned outright in the show, her ethnicity is implied through her name and appearance, which can allow young girls of a similar racial background to identify with her.
If this representation isn’t awesome enough that many of the main characters and side characters of Steven Universe are of color, it’s noteworthy that so are many of the voice actors. Over half of the cast of Steven Universe are people of color. Steven is the only one of the main cast that is not voiced by a person of color.
This is important because even though many shows are now casting of people of color in lead roles, it usually doesn’t go beyond just a few characters.
One of the most revolutionary things about Steven Universe is its exploration of gender and sexuality. As I’ve mentioned before the Crystal Gems are technically genderless and sexless, but they use feminine pronouns. Their lack of gender has been officially established by Rebecca Sugar. Even Matt Burnett has stated that they can be whatever identity the audience interprets them as, such as transgender.
When discussing transgender issues people can still get stuck seeing others as either strictly male or female. As we know gender is much more fluid and doesn’t exist in a binary. For a show aimed at children, such an impressionable group, to recognize this is quite a leap forward. If you look at Steven, the fact that he’s half Crystal Gem allows him to be interpreted as intersex, since they are read as female. Hopefully Rebecca Sugar will reveal soon whether this is canon or not.
It’s particularly interesting how they handled the character of Stevonnie, the fusion between Connie and Steven. Stevonnie is a combination of a presumably white human boy and Indian human girl, who has been confirmed to not use him or her pronouns. Stevonnie is admired by both boys and girls. No indication of Stevonnie’s gender or sex is given, because it’s obvious that it’s not necessary. Stevonnie is simply Stevonnie, and gender should not change the way we think of the character, or people in general.
Yet the aspect of Steven Universe that has many queer fans celebrating most is the relationship between Ruby and Sapphire. Ruby and Sapphire are gems that we meet late on the series, but when they first appear it is clear that their love runs deeper than mere friendship. They have a tight bond and storyboard artist Joe Johnston has confirmed that their bond is
This can be interpreted as a queer relationship because although the gems are genderless, they are usually read as female, so Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship can be read as lesbian, bisexual, or pansexual, for example. Also if some viewers like the idea of not assigning a gender to their relationship, we get a relationship that’s completely free of labels relating to gender and sexual orientation; it’s pretty revolutionary for any show, let alone a kids show.
*SPOILER ALERT* Garnet is revealed to be the fusion of Ruby and Sapphire, which makes them not only a metaphor for queer love but also self-love, self preservation, and confidence. *END OF SPOILER*
What’s even better is that in the episode Love Letters, Steven states in the show that Ruby and Sapphire are in a romantic relationship. This is what we need, a children’s show that directly acknowledges a queer relationship. Although Ruby and Sapphire may not technically be lesbians, bisexuals, or pansexuals (since again, they are canonically genderless), unless we choose to read them that way, their lack of gender does not make them a heterosexual couple by any means. There has even been some romantic implications involving Pearl and Rose Quartz, which will hopefully get expanded upon later.
So while Steven Universe can definitely improve by adding more direct commentary on issues related to gender, sexuality, and race, we don’t know what level of control the writers have in relation to their network and censorship. They are doing a good job with what they can. Rebecca Sugar even said that she wants to use the fantasy world of Steven Universe as a platform to tackle sensitive issues and make people feel represented.
The only way we can get more shows like Steven Universe is if people watch shows like Steven Universe. You should watch it not only because of its hilarious cutting-edge writing and wonderful soundtrack, but also because it’s one of the most progressive shows on television. We need more shows like this with racial diversity, queer representation, and strong female cast. Steven Universe shows us that diversity isn’t just a cool trend, but a necessity. Each episode is only 11 minutes which makes it good binge-watching material, so go on and indulge.