Rebecca Sugar has been leading the way for queer visibilty in children’s cartoons—from their contributions on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time to their own show, Steven Universe. Here, they discuss telling unprecedented stories and living vicariously through their characters
FOR ALMOST 10 years, Rebecca Sugar has been the guiding force behind bringing LGBTQ+ visibility to children’s cartoons. Identifying as both non-binary and bisexual, Sugar has broken down barriers with the stroke of their brush, and has created storylines that go where no animated series has ever gone before. The Silver Spring, MD, native’s efforts to make children’s cartoons queer AF date back as early as 2010. That’s when the 23-year-old’s not-so-subtle additions as a storyboard artist and writer on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time got them noticed as the person who hinted at a relationship between characters Princess Bubblegum and Marceline. After 283 episodes across 10 seasons, the “Bubbline” relationship, as it was dubbed by fans, was finally sealed with a kiss on the series finale in 2018, and Sugar was further cemented as a living legend.
A graduate of The School of Visual Arts, Sugar’s success on Adventure Time would lead them to get their own series, Steven Universe, in 2013. Named after Sugar’s real-life younger brother, Steven Sugar, Steven Universe is your average, fun-loving, ukulele-playing, animal-shaped-snack-eating kid. Except he’s also a half-human, half-alien “gem” child who helps protect his hometown with help from some extraterrestrial guardians—Amethyst, Pearl, and Garnet (who is herself a fusion of two characters: Ruby and Sapphire)—known collectively as the Crystal Gems. Despite the fact that the Crystal Gems aren’t restricted by human gender constructs, they are all female-presenting and use she/her pronouns. And while the series touches on classic children’s animated themes like friendship and the importance of family, it also addresses more complex subjects such as same-sex couples, same-sex attraction, bisexuality, and genderqueer identity, while tackling themes of trauma, forgiveness, consent, grief, and harassment. For over 5 seasons, the 11-minute episodes have been jam-packed with action, lessons, and songs—music that Sugar writes themself.
Voiced predominantly by a cast of women of color, along with regular voice appearances from Estelle and guest appearances from the likes of Nicki Minaj, Uzo Aduba, Natasha Lyonne, Sinbad, and Patti LuPone, the GLAAD Award-winning and six-time Emmy-nominated series is nothing short of a phenomenon.
Just days after the Cartoon Network premiere of Steven Universe: The Movie, which attracted 1.57 million viewers and included musical contributions from Chance the Rapper, James Fauntleroy, Aimee Mann, and more, I reached out by phone to Sugar, now 32, at their office in Los Angeles.
Steven Universe is the first series on Cartoon Network not created by a man. Despite the ratings, do you ever feel like you had to fight harder for your vision because of your gender identity?
There are so many reasons why me as an artist, and the work I’m trying to do, is treated differently than that of other show creators. The stories that my team and I want to tell are authentic to our childhood experiences, and oftentimes there isn’t a precedent for that. It’s extremely rare for a marginalized creator to have control over an animated show. And when we pitch ideas, the precedent doesn’t exist to say, “This idea will be a success” or “This idea will read or be understood as a cartoon.” As a result, I have to fight, a lot, to say, “This will resonate,” “Yes, this is appropriate,” and “Yes, this is a story that is fun.” It’s so rare for a group of artists like us to get to make cartoons that we think are fun.
Do you follow the social media feeds when the episodes air? If so, what’s that experience like?
I do. I feel like art, cartooning, music—it’s all communication, so there is an amazing moment when what we’re saying is actually heard by people. The work is finally exposed to oxygen, and all the blood, sweat, and tears cauterize and solidify into a cartoon. I think, too, telling stories that are unprecedented—the moment they hit the air, it’s really exciting because it means it can be done. It happened. And from that moment on, that will always be something that can happen in a cartoon, because it [already] did.
How does it feel to have a character like Pearl, who I see as being most like you, be so unpopular with audiences?
Well, the character who is actually most like me is Ruby. It would be really tough, I think, if people were as frustrated with Ruby as they are with Pearl. But each of the characters reflects a little bit of how I am. Pearl is sort of me at work; Amethyst is me at home; and Garnet is me in my relationship with [my partner] Ian Jones-Quartey.
Since you brought him up, you’ve been with your partner Ian Jones-Quartey, creator of OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes, since grad school, and you have worked on multiple projects together. Is maintaining both your romantic and professional relationships challenging?
It’s absolutely challenging. One thing that I really love about being in the relationship that I’m in is that not everyone can understand what it is to care so much about cartoons. And we really understand and encourage one another’s passion for cartooning. [Early on] there were times when I had been on the verge of giving up on animation, knowing how difficult it can be to navigate this industry, and he’s always been such an inspiring force for me. Being with him I never forget what I love about this medium.
“I find that the deeper I get into doing this work, the more I focus on the joy that can be had by drawing cartoons.”
Your audience ranges from very young children to teens and adults. How do you cope with the kind of unwavering love they all have for you?
As someone who was an intense fan when I was younger, I really understand it. I used to put creators on a pedestal because it made me feel so close to them, like I really knew them. To participate in someone’s art and feel like you understand something so deeply about them because they’re expressing themselves and you’re receiving it—there’s something sad about [that], because it’s so one-sided. But that was also really inspiring to me; it made me want to make work to trade with my heroes and get feedback from them. So now, when people come to me and feel connected to what I’ve done, I understand the other side of the equation [as a creator] and how lonely it is, and I want to know who they are. I love hearing from them and encouraging them to draw and share that experience with each other.
During the pivotal wedding in Season 5 between Ruby and Sapphire, I found it extremely interesting that Ruby, who normally wears pants, was in the wedding dress, and Sapphire, who is normally in a dress, was in the tuxedo. Can you explain that decision?
In the story, Sapphire is Ian and I’m Ruby. So that made sense to me. There are many ways that I have tried to navigate how to portray the Gems as characters, because they are perceived as women, but they’re not. I have many, many reasons for putting Ruby in the dress. But the one that is most personal to me is that I’m often very conflicted about wearing feminine clothes. And I want to have the freedom to do that, and not have that make me any less of a non-binary person. It felt good to me to be able to show her doing that, and still be her. I also wanted to show how flexible [the Gems] are. And how they can enjoy whatever it is that they enjoy.
As a non-binary person, do you ever feel pressure or responsibility to always get it right in representing every aspect of the experience and identity?
I find that the deeper I get into doing this work, the more I focus on the joy that can be had by drawing cartoons. As a person who is non-binary, bisexual, and Jewish, I want to express myself through this medium. For marginalized creators it is very critical that they enjoy expressing themselves, and that their work can let other marginalized creators know that they also deserve to have fun doing the work that they love. In my life, I’ve felt what happens when you’re isolated from the people you can relate to, and who can help you understand yourself. You’re isolated because of bigotry, and because what you have to say are uncomfortable truths about how you have lived, and the way that you are forced to repress yourself. I think it is incredibly powerful to make an honest piece of artwork. I hope that more marginalized creators can make work that is really authentic to their own experiences, and that it can then be received by other people, so we can all feel a lot less alone.
Are you a feminist?
Yes! I’m an intersectional feminist. I believe that people should be equal. And I also find that understanding myself, and the ways in which I do not feel like a woman, has helped me support women more. I feel like I was held back for a long time from being able to support women, because I was so unsure of who I was or where I fit into anything. Now I find that, especially in this industry, I very much want to speak up for women. And knowing that I don’t necessarily fit under that label does not make me want to fight for them any less, but actually much more. I really believe that everyone in general really needs to speak up and step up for each other’s rights and equal footing.
I’m still working on Steven Universe. As long as I’m working on Steven, my whole heart is in it, so it’s hard to think about anything else. But I would love to make music, I would love to write poetry. I would love to take a little time to think for a moment about what else I might like to do. But there is so much that I want to do. There is so much more love I have for animation, drawing, and music. I just wish there was more time in the day.
Story by Bry'onna Mention
Photography by Elizabeth Weinberg
Styled by Jardine Hammond
Hair/Makeup by Stephanie Nicole Smith for Exclusive Artists Using Face Atelier
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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