How ‘Steven Universe’ Deconstructs Heteronormativity
Image via Steven Crewniverse. / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
After a seven month break, “Steven Universe” returned on Dec. 15! The “Steven Universe” was created by Rebecca Sugar and premiered on November 4, 2013 as Cartoon Network’s first animated series to be created by a woman. The series has gained popularity for its beautiful animation, feminist themes, and inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters.
Heteronormativity, the societal assumption that heterosexuality is the default human condition, is constructed and reinforced by numerous structures, including children’s media. Researchers Karin A. Martin and Emily Kazyak have demonstrated that heteronormativity is constructed through hetero-romantic love being presented as exceptional, magical, and transformative. The absence of LGBTQ+ characters in the media contributes to the image of non-heteronormative identities as abnormal. This plays a significant role in shaping children’s understanding of sexuality and romance.
Rebecca Sugar has used “Steven Universe” as an opportunity to deconstruct heteronormativity and provide LGBTQ+ children with characters like them. While speaking to Movie Pilot, Sugar said “You can’t wait until kids have grown up to let them know that queer people exist.” Stories revolving around LGBTQ+ individuals and relationships are often treated as “mature” content and “inappropriate” for children. As a result, anyone outside of the heterosexual and cisgender norm becomes ostracized, or fetishized and sensensalized.
Sugar introduces an alien species known as Gems in her series.Steven is a half-human/half-Gem hybrid who lives with a group of rebel Gems known as the Crystal Gems. Under their guidance, he is learning to control the abilities he inherited from his mother. Gems are sexless beings. When asked by fans if there are any male Gems, Sugar responded “The real question is, were/are there any female crystal gems! And the answer is NO. Gems are Gems!” The Gems don’t have a sex, but appear to prefer a traditionally feminine appearance and pronouns (she/her/hers). This challenges the belief that sex determines an individual’s gender and supports the idea that gender is a performance unrelated to an individual’s biology (It is important to note also that pronouns don’t dictate gender; the Gems may use she/her/hers, but they don’t necessarily identify as women). Gem bodies are also very malleable. The only physical part of them is their gemstone, which they project their humanoid appearances from. Their appearances are “illusions” the same way that gender is a performance. Since Gem bodies are malleable, they are able to perform fusion.
Gems are able to fuse with one another to create a new and more powerful Gem in a process called fusion. Fusion is very difficult to do and requires the Gems involved to be physically, mentally, and emotionally in sync. Through fusion, Sugar introduces agender characters. When Steven fuses with his human friend Connie they become a new being called Stevonnie, and when he fuses with the Gem Amethyst they become Smoky Quartz. Both of them use the pronouns they/them/theirs and their voice actors uses a specific timbre that is neither traditionally masculine nor feminine. The magical bodies of Gems allows Sugar to create characters that are beyond the gender binary.
Fusion is also used to present non-heterosexual romances as magical and transformative.
While speaking to Movie Pilot, Sugar spoke about society’s fixation on romance: “I think a lot about fairy tales and Disney movies and the way that love is something that’s always discussed with children.” This influx of media tells children that they should dream about a fulfilling love that they’ll one day have, a love that will bring them happiness. This love is heteronormative, and thus excludes LGBTQ+ children from the dream. Sugar commented on this idea, “You’re sort of dreaming about a future where you will find happiness. Why shouldn’t everyone [have] that?
Throughout the series, Rebecca Sugar establishes fusion as an intimate experience for Gems. Since fusion requires the participants to be emotionally, physically, and mentally in sync, it’s difficult for Gems to accomplish. Even if it is accomplished, it is difficult to maintain a fusion. In her animated short “The Classroom Gems: Fusion,” Sugar establishes that the best reason to fuse with another Gem is “love” in the most general sense.
In the episode “Giant Woman,” Pearl and Amethyst, members of the Crystal Gems and Steven’s Guardians, struggle to fuse because their opposite personalities make it difficult to become synced with one another. However, when Steven is put into danger, they are able to successfully fuse into Opal and save Steven. In this case, their love for Steven allows them to overcome their differences and successfully fuse. In another episode,“Earthlings,” Amethyst and Steven are able to fuse into Smoky Quartz because of their sibling-like love for each other. While love of any kind can make fusion easier for Gems, romantic love is seen much more common as a reason to fuse.
Fusion based on romantic love is consistently presented as magical and heroic. This is demonstrated by Ruby, Sapphire, and their fused form Garnet. Garnet often refers to herself as the embodiment of Ruby and Sapphire’s romantic relationship for each othe. In the episode “Jailbreak”, Garnet fights a powerful warrior Gem who is opposed to fusion among different gems under the basis that it makes them weak, and she sings a song titled Stronger than You.”‘ The song includes lyrics where Garnet explains that she is a ‘conversation’ between Ruby and Sapphire that means she is ‘made of love, and it’s stronger than you. When Garnet is asked out by the mailman Jamie in the episode “Love Letters”, Steven has to explain to Jamie that Garnet “is a relationship” and won’t date him.
Besides Garnet, there are the fusions Topaz, Rhodonite, and Fluorite. All three appear to representent romantic relationships. Topaz is introduced as an enemy and a threat to Steven, but it is soon revealed that Topaz only obeys the orders of other villains to ensure that she can remained fuse. For the two gems that create her, fusion is an expression of romantic affection and their desire to stay together. Then in the episode “Off Colors,” Steven meets a group of prosecuted Gems, including the fusions Rhodonite and Fluorite. Both fusions left court after being ordered to un-fuse. Both of these fusions are presented as the embodiment of forbidden lovers. In the case of Fluorite, a fusion composed of six gems, they represent a polyamorous relationship as well. Therefore, while Sugar uses fusion as a symbol for relationships in general, they are used more often as expressions of love.
When romantic love is represented through fusion, it frames romantic love as a special power. Fusion allows Gems to become stronger, but it’s extremely difficult to accomplish for individuals who don’t share romantic feelings for each other. Fusion is easy for individuals in a romantic relationship, demonstrated by the fact that Garnet, Topaz, Rhodonite, and Fluorite are able to remain fused 24/7, despite fusion being extremely difficult to maintain. In the episodes,“The Answer” and “Hit the Diamond,” Ruby and Sapphire accidently fuse after embracing, demonstrating that their love for each other allows them to unintentionally accomplish something that other Gem’s struggle with. And when they use their love for each other to fuse without problems, they are able to become the strong, unstoppable Garnet. Therefore, through fusion, queer love is presented as magical, something allows them to become a powerful and admirable hero.
Steven and his best friend and crush Connie are also able to fuse without difficulty, demonstrated by “Alone Together” and “We Need to Talk.” In both cases, the pair accidently fuse while dancing together. The two are also weaker characters that are able to become powerful through their love-based fusion. This is demonstrated in the episode “Crack the Whip,” in which their fusion Stevonnie is able to defeat a powerful warrior Gem. Amethyst, who is stronger than both Steven and Connie, arrives at the battle worried that the two have been hurt by the villain. She is shocked to see that Stevonnie has defeated them. During this scene Stevonnie appears heroic and leaves Amethyst in awe. They were able to accomplish something neither of them could do on their own because of their love.
Therefore, fusion is used to present love between any two individuals as something special that allow the partners to create a strong hero who can save the day. This challenges the way heteronormativity is typically constructed in children’s media. Sugar provides numerous love stories for all children to relate to, to allow all children to dream about their own happy futures. The show has the potential to teach kids about diverse love stories and about loving who are.
In the episode the “The Answer,” Garnet asks Rose Quartz if she’s upset with Garnet for being a fusion based on love. In response, Rose Quartz declares “Who cares about how I feel? How you feel is bound to be much more interesting.” “Steven Universe” encourages its audience to celebrate their identities and their feelings. Hopefully the series inspires more non-heteronormative cartoons so that kids learn to accept all forms of love and to not let themselves be held back by societal expectations.