Image: Screen capture of the Steven Universe Title Card, available from Cartoon Network under fair use.
It’s a bit embarrassing to think back on now, but I watched a lot of American animated kid’s shows when I was younger. I still have the Dragon Tales theme song memorized by heart, and will cackle whenever someone drops a Spongebob reference. Television for younger audiences aren’t afraid to have over-the-top plots, zany characters, or eye-popping art-style.
I might not have as much free time now to watch Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon, but when I first heard about Steven Universe in 2013, I was incredibly interested. A ten-year-old boy figuring out his place in the world, while under the guidance of three magical aliens tasked with protecting Earth? It easily captured my heart. As the series progressed, I realized that I was more intrigued by its underlying feminist messages than its inventive plot.
In fact, Rebecca Sugar, the mind behind Steven Universe, is the first woman to create her own Cartoon Network series. The Crystal Gems, the rebel group of female* humanoid aliens that teach Steven about his powers as a half-human half-gem, is a nod to the “magical girl” anime genre (think Sailor Moon). Made up of Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, the team uses magical weapons and powers to fight monsters. It’s quintessential girl-power. And then – enter Steven.
Steven, an exuberant boy whose mom was also a Crystal Gem, is eager to join the rest of the gems in protecting their hometown of Beach City. Under the tutelage of Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, Steven is still coming to terms with his identity. While it might be odd to describe a show with a male protagonist as feminist, Steven Universe is more than a cartoon geared to appeal to young boys.
The Crystal Gems are equally important to Steven in the show. Fending off otherworldly beasts of their own kind, they are dedicated to defending Beach City at all costs. The Crystal Gems represent what Steven aspires to be: a skilled warrior. Their gender does not in any way detract from their ability to fight, and Steven knows this. For any show on television, it’s absolutely refreshing for a male protagonist to look up to older females as role models for combat.
Despite having weapons and powers, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl are more than just fighters. They each act as a “mom” to Steven; they jump to protect him from danger and make time to have fun with him. Although they aren’t very knowledgeable in human parenting, the Crystal Gems try their best to support Steven while making sure he is safe and happy. In the pilot, they begin to clap along to Steven’s song, when they notice he’s somewhat nervous during his performance. Similarly, in “Bubble Buddies,” they encourage Steven to talk to and befriend Connie when they notice his efforts to nonchalantly impress her. Steven and the Crystal Gems exemplify that non-nuclear families can work perfectly well as “normal” nuclear ones; the episode “Fusion Cuisine” especially teaches viewers that not every family is the same – but that’s absolutely okay, as long as each member is happy, healthy, and loves one another.
Aside from the Crystal Gems, the residents of Beach City and beyond are wonderfully diverse. The Pizza family, owners of the restaurant “Fish Stew Pizza,” is Ghanaian. Connie Maheswaran, Steven’s close friend and crush, is Indian. However, these characters are neither defined by their culture or race nor feel shoehorned in the show in the name of diversity. They’re just fun and engaging – and happen to be POCs. Likewise, Steven Universe goes beyond the typical heteronormative relationships seen in animated shows. Again, nothing feels forced; the romantic feelings characters have for each other simply make sense, regardless of gender or sexuality.
Steven Universe ultimately is a ten-year-old boy’s coming-of-age story, a genre typically aimed to entertain similarly-aged young boys. Anyone, however, can watch and enjoy it. I’ll still revel in Spongebob jokes and reminisce on my adventures with Max and Emmy in Dragon Land. But when a real gem of an animated series crashes into our universe and subtly undercuts gender norms without giving up the genuine heart that we love in kid’s shows, I know I’ll be a devoted fan for many, many years to come.
*The Crystal Gems are actually just what they are – gems from space. However, their gemstones project their bodies as female. Some fans have consequently viewed them as agender. In this article, I chose to identify them as female.