Steven Universe, the first Cartoon Network show created by a woman (Rebecca Sugar, former Adventure Time writer), is so much more than just a kids' show - it’s a feminist revolution.
The show focuses on the Crystal Gems, a team of renegade aliens who take the form of giant, powerful women who protect Earth. Steven is the half-human, half-Crystal Gem son of Rose Quartz (leader of the Crystal Gems) and Greg Universe (a regular human man). In order to create Steven, Rose had to give up her physical form. What’s left of her is her pink gemstone, as Steven’s bellybutton. The show follows Steven and the Gems as they go on adventures to save the Earth from invaders from the Gems’ homeworld.
The show includes so many metaphors about gender and sexual orientation. Steven, for instance, doesn’t adhere to traditional stereotypes of boyhood. He has no problem wearing dresses or expressing emotions.
The Gems, though they don’t have gender, appear as women and use she/her pronouns. Garnet, the Gem voiced by Estelle, is a fusion of two gems - Sapphire and Ruby. Not only is this a metaphor for queer relationships, but the concept of fusion in Steven Universe holds a great deal of power as a tool for teaching consent to children.
“Like sex, fusion is a physical manifestation of a relationship and relies on trust and communication. But oversimplifying fusion as a direct metaphor for sex would be a disservice to Steven Universe. Instead, the show uses fusion to discuss general issues of consent and honesty in relationships,” Ashley Moonwrites for <em< a="">>Smosh. For instance, when Pearl tricks Garnet into fusing with her in the episode “Cry For Help,” Garnet feels incredibly betrayed and used.
When Steven learns he can fuse with his human friend Connie, they create Stevonnie, a non-binary person, complete with ambiguous gender markers, who uses the pronouns they/them.
Additionally, the show depicts a healthy, non-nuclear family. Steven is being raised by the three female-presenting Gems - Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl, while his dad lives on his own. “For once the female characters are shown to be the leaders and the man isn’t the all-encompassing hero like in most shows,” Astral Plane writes for <em< a="">>Fembot.
The show is also body positive, with all the Gems having different body types. Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, is 8-feet-tall and plus-sized, Pearl is skinny and lanky, Garnet is tall and curvy, and Amethyst and Steven are both short and stout.
“My goal with the show was to really tear down and play with the semiotics of gender in cartoons for children because I think that’s a really absurd idea that there would be something radically different about a show for little girls versus a show for little boys,” Rebecca Sugar said in an interview with<em< a="">>Entertainment Weekly.
Another important point is that Steven Universe has a great deal of racial and ethnic diversity. While the Gems aren’t human and technically don’t have race, they have features that can be read as races other than white. “Some might read Pearl and Amethyst to be Asian, or Garnet to be black. People from all walks of life can identify with them,” Plane says in her essay for <em< a="">>Fembot. Aside from the Gems, many of the humans living in the fictional town of Beach City are people of color - Steven’s best friend Connie is Indian, for example. Not only are the characters diverse, but many of the voice actors who work on the show are people of color as well.
“Rocknaldo,” a recent episode of Steven Universe, was most definitely a reference to allyship in social justice circles. Seriously, you could replace every time Beach City resident Ronaldo says “Crystal Gem” with “feminist.” Considering this episode was written storyboarded by Hilary Florido and Lauren Zuke, a woman and a non-binary person respectively, the subtle themes of false allyship in this episode speak volumes.
“Over the course of the series, Ronaldo’s mostly been used as a meta-critique of online fandom, living his life largely on social media and spouting conspiracy theories like a fire hose,” Zach Blumenfeld writes for <em< a="">>Paste. One such conspiracy theory was about the Crystal Gems, handing out pamphlets claiming all Gems were evil, threatening “rock people” who hate men.
“Don’t say rock people. It’s offensive,” Steven informed him.
After being educated about the Gems, Ronaldo looks to become one. “We spend most of ‘Rocknaldo’ watching Ronaldo live in the temple, trying to train himself with a replica sword, creating his own Gemsona (‘Bloodstone’), and gaslighting Steven into thinking he’s not a real Crystal Gem,” writes Eric Thurm for A.V. Club.
“I’m a Crystal Gem, too,” Ronaldo states after the Gems refuse to let him tag along on a mission. “He wonders why belonging can’t just consist of taping a star to his chest and wielding a katana; he puzzles over why, even among these outsiders, he does not belong. Biology certainly plays a part—obviously, he does not have a gem—but that’s far from the whole story, because Connie (as Ronaldo notes) has become a full member of the team despite being fully human. What Ronaldo fails to recognize when he says the above five words is that he’s doing this for himself, not to help or better understand Steven and his guardians,” says Blumenfeld in his <em< a="">>Paste essay.
Steven wasn’t taking any of Ronaldo’s shit. “Ever since you got here, all you've done is boss me around! Who are you to tell anyone how to be a Crystal Gem?! You're just-You're just... a guy with a blog!” Steven yells at Ronaldo.
“Is that love? Is that acceptance? Maybe you're the one that isn't a Crystal Gem. I think you need to leave and think about stuff,” Ronaldo retorts in a very mansplain-y fashion.
“You're right, the Crystal Gems are about love and acceptance! But you've been acting really mean to me, and I don't love that. I don't accept that. I wish I hadn't snapped at you, it's just... I really thought you joined because you were interested in the Crystal Gems. But the second it wasn't about you, you stopped caring. This isn't the Bloodstone club about making Bloodstone feel good. This is my whole life! Do you care about that or not?!” Steven finally answers after some consideration.
And then... Ronaldo faints.
“Whoa! You truthed him so hard, he died!” Amethyst says excitedly.
Steven Universe is the diverse, body positive, LGBTQ+ friendly, feminist show I wish had been around when I was growing up. But because of these themes, the show is by no means just for kids. People of all ages will find something within Steven Universe they can relate to or be inspired by.
Rafaella is a graduate of The New School, where she majored in journalism and minored in gender studies. She's passionate about feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, combatting online harassment, and ending herpes stigma. Visit her website: ellagunz.com