Subtle, endearing, and wonderfully complex, Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe has been charming kid and adult audiences alike since its pilot aired in November 2013. Each eleven-minute episode slowly reveals the life and world of Steven Universe, a ten-year-old boy who is half-alien, half-human, and the people in his hometown, Beach City. Because Steven’s magical, alien mother, Rose Quartz, sacrificed herself to create Steven, her friends and allies, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, have stepped in as Steven’s surrogate mothers. Under their guidance Steven learns to awaken the powers he inherited from his mother and join his family, also known as the Crystal Gems, in defending Earth from monsters and invaders.
It’s hard to pinpoint a single reason why Steven Universe, a show targeted at children, also appeals to such a large adult audience. Part of the show’s charm lies in the storytelling. The episodic, semi-serialised format allows Sugar to easily move between focusing on larger, more action-packed story arcs and zooming in on smaller, quieter facets of the show. These simple touches, such as Steven’s love for Cookie Cat ice cream sandwiches, add texture and depth to the characters, making Steven’s world appear that much more real.
Then there is the sheer diversity of the cast. Many communities, feminist and queer communities in particular, embrace the show partly because this is the kind of media they wish they’d had as children. Although they are alien beings, Garnet’s and Amethyst’s physical traits code them as people of color and several human citizens of Beach City are people of color, setting the cast of Steven Universe apart from their frequently whitewashed peers in other animated series. Adding to this diversity, Amethyst, Steven, Steven’s father Greg, Rose Quartz, and a number of other characters are all round or fat or overweight in some way. The show never shames them for this, but instead celebrates their squishiness. Rose’s and Steven’s size acts as a visual cue for their overflowing compassion for fellow Gems and the denizens of Earth.
Similarly, Greg lives in a van and runs a car wash, but he isn’t depicted as a dead-beat dad. Quite the opposite: Greg is a vital aspect of Steven’s semi-polyamorous, non-nuclear family, and the show doesn’t imply that Steven will grow up “wrong” or “damaged” because of his unusual upbringing. In expressing his feminine side through compassion, kindness, powers of healing, or even his choice of clothing, Steven continuously deconstructs normative male gender roles. Again, Steven’s femininity is not condemned in the least but is either taken for granted or encouraged by his community. When Steven figures out how to fuse with his best friend, Connie Maheswaran, they form Stevonnie, a non-binary character that the show actively celebrates. Because the Gems are technically agender space rocks who default to using female pronouns, any romantic relationships they form are inherently queer. In “Jail Break” we find out that Garnet a permanent fusion between Ruby and Sapphire, two Gems who are so deeply in love that they can’t bear to be separated from each other. There are also hints throughout the series that Pearl harbors romantic feelings for Rose Quartz. Mainstream television shows rarely depict lesbian relationships, much less explore them as deeply as Steven Universe does.
On second consideration, it’s possible that the show’s appeal is far more basic: Steven Universe does not talk down to kids or assume that any subject is “too much” for them to handle. Sugar and her team trust that kids can deal with heavy, adult themes and write accordingly, empowering younger audiences to engage with their society and offering fresh, new perspectives to adults.
Lauren Maier is a third year PhD student at the University of Hull. Her thesis focuses on the Disney Princess franchise’s evolution and how the franchise impacts female gender roles among young girls in the United States. Outside of gender and animation, she is also interested in studying comics, popular culture, and other “geeky” subjects.