By Lindsay Amer
Let me tell you about the best show on television. Its premise is endlessly creative, the art beautifully rendered, the stories superbly queer, and it is primarily made for kids (10+). Steven Universe might be a children’s cartoon on Cartoon Network, but it is oh so much more.If you don’t already watch it, you absolutely should.More importantly, you should watch it with your kid(s).
The show’s creator, Rebecca Sugar, is Cartoon Network’s first female showrunner and an out and proud queer lady! In Steven Universe, Sugar transports us to the quirky queer world of Beach City, populated by futuristic characters known as “gems,” who are genderless, and Steven, who is half-gem, half-human boy. There’s a lot more to it, but gems are essentially aliens with superpowers named for gemstones. The show follows Steven as he navigates his half-gem identity, learns more about the mysterious gem-homeworld, and goes on Earth-saving adventures!
Before the series begins, we learn that Steven’s mother (Rose Quartz, his gem parent) is no longer around so he is raised by three characters known as the Crystal Gems: Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst. Steven’s parental figures (all voiced by female actors of color!) model an unconventional family structure while providing a solid feminist foundation for the show’s lessons with a strong girl power vibe. While gems are generally described by the show’s creators as “gender-less,” the Crystal Gems themselves are female-identifying and use feminine pronouns. Garnet, a tall, full-hipped stoic gem with future-vision, leads the group. Fellow Crystal Gem, Pearl, is slender, graceful, and feminine, and can also work a sword like nobody’s business. And finally, Amethyst is a short, carefree gem with a rebellious streak and an insatiable appetite. All are so different from each other, but complement and strengthen one another in times of need.
As someone with a complicated family (step-parents, step-siblings, and about five different last names in one household), I have rarely found relatable depictions of my family on television. When I was a kid, we called ourselves the Brady Bunch, but the picture-perfect kids with hair of gold never rang true to me. The happy queer family on Steven Universe, consisting of Steven, the Crystal Gems, and Steven’s awesome rocker/van-living/car-washing dad Greg Universe, can show adults and kids alike that there are many types of families outside of the frequently depicted nuclear structure.
The show’s true brilliance lies in the advent of fusion. Fusion is a gem superpower. When two gems dance together, they fuse to form a new gem, greater than the sum of its parts. Stevonnie is a non-binary fusion of Steven and his (human) best friend Connie. They navigate the world together, in the liminal space between genders, exploring their new identity as the experience of being one Stevonnie, neither half-human/half-gem boy, or human girl, but both. Their adventure as Stevonnie creates a validated space for gender experimentation and creativity in a new and unfamiliar identity.
The queer crowning achievement of the show is Garnet. Garnet is a permanent fusion of Ruby and Sapphire, two female-identifying gems who love each other. In the episode “Jail Break,” we meet Ruby and Sapphire and watch them fuse into Garnet, who sings that Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship is awesome and stable and that they are “gonna stay like this forever.” The moment is radical in its profound normalcy–I mean, apart from them being gems with superpowers. In “The Answer,” Ruby and Sapphire’s love story is a whirling watercolor fairytale of life-saving and fumbling accidental fusion. And in “Hit the Diamond,” their unabashed flirting interrupts a friendly game of baseball. Theirs is a bond to behold. It’s the show’s most present love affair, the central romance of Steven’s universe, and an exemplar of a dynamic, healthy same-sex relationship.
Stevonnie and Garnet are just the queer tip of the iceberg in the world of Steven Universe. The show’s writing is full of language acknowledging the importance of consent, respect for all genders, body positivity, and mental health.
Queer representation in children’s media is so utterly important, it is impossible to exaggerate. It’s monumental when little queer kids can hear and see their identities validated on screen. Queerness is so intrinsic to the fabric of Sugar’s world that it becomes utterly normal to Steven’s–Why can’t it be the same to ours? This normalcy, above anything else, is why you should watch this show with your kids. Lead by example. Engage them in conversation. Ask them questions. Join them in their fandom. Validate their media choices. Show them that what they see in Steven’s world can be true for ours as well. Make Steven Universe a family affair.
We might not be gems with superpowers, but we are humans with hearts, minds, bodies, and words, and we have our own power in this world. We might not fuse, but we can dance, bond, love, hurt, and grow old together, and we fuse in our own ways. If Steven, the Gems, and Greg are all happy living their lives just the way they like, then why can’t our families look different, too? So get watching. You’ll have the theme song stuck in your head by episode three. Plus, episodes are only 10 minutes long. What are you waiting for?
Lindsay is a New York-based artist making queer content for kids! You can check out her newest project, Queer Kid Stuff, an LGBTQ+ educational webseries for the kiddos on YouTube. She is also a founder and Co-Artistic Director for Bluelaces Theater Company, creating multi-sensory work for individuals with developmental differences. She holds a BS in Theatre (with a minor in Gender Studies) from Northwestern University and an MA in Theater and Performance from Queen Mary University of London. When she’s not completely overwhelmed by adulthood, she’s probably plotting ways to overthrow the patriarchy while playing her ukulele. Follow her on Twitter @thelamerest
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