In one of the first episodes of Steven Universe I watched, best friends Steven and Connie hold hands and dance on a pink-hued beach, before “fusing” for the first time to become Stevonnie. In their new body, which presents as a well-developed young woman, Stevonnie heads to a club to show off their dance moves—until they feel all eyes are on them and a panic attack sets in. People loom, large and scary, all around Stevonnie until they feel trapped and alone. In the middle of this, some creep approaches with a “Hey, baby,” invading their space and dancing around them. “This is supposed to be fun. I’m not having fun,” Stevonnie says. “I don’t want to dance any more.” When the creeper doesn’t get the hint, Stevonnie spins around and lets their frustrations out with stomps and grunts until dude backs off.
This scene from the Steven Universe episode “Alone Together” really hit home for me, a 31-year-old single person who’s experienced the same harassment during nights out downtown. Watching Stevonnie dance, I felt empowered—even if this cartoon, whose intended audience is eight to 12-year-olds, wasn’t exactly made for me. And I’m far from the show’s only millennial fan.
Steven Universe was created by Rebecca Sugar—who is also 31, and identifies as bisexual—and much of her life experiences are reflected in the series. The character of Steven is based on her brother; the three Crystal Gems who look out for him (Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl) represent the different roles Sugar took on as an older sister while they were growing up. Steven, who is half-Gem, half-human, is protected by the Crystal Gems as he figures out his own powers, which include the ability to “fuse,” the process by which Gems merge their bodies to form more powerful personalities. All of the characters except for Steven and his dad, Greg, are women—a rarity in kids’ cartoons (I grew up with Animaniacs, which had a mostly-male cast of characters), and while they don’t discuss their preferences openly, viewers can plainly see that many female characters have feelings for one another. And this past summer, the show made history with a same-sex wedding between Ruby and Sapphire, a first for a mainstream children’s show.
In short, Steven Universe, which is also the first animated series developed by a female showrunner for the Cartoon Network, has become one of the most LGBTQ-friendly shows on TV today—and that matters. Queer youth are still underrepresented in the media, especially on TV. A 2017-18 report from GLADD notes that aside from Will & Grace’s return, “we have yet to see a swell of original series including LGBTQ characters as lead characters.” And I’d wager that the show’s super-inclusive POV, which performs well among its target demographic, is also the reason it has drawn such a passionate millennial viewership—especially among people who identify as queer.
The anime-inspired world of Steven Universe exists in contrast to its cartoon competitors, hyper-feminine, sparkly shows like My Little Pony and Monster High (which was cancelled in 2016, but still has a huge following today). And while other popular kids’ cartoons like Arthur also teach valuable lessons about gender stereotypes and teamwork, Steven Universe achieves the same thing but in a much less forced way. This authenticity caught on quick: in its first season in 2013, Steven Universe had an average viewership of 1.9 million. (In comparison the first season of Riverdale had an average viewership of 1.572 million.)
The show’s authenticity (and popularity) is also why Dove recently paired with Sugar on a series of clips that feature the cast of Steven Universe and aim to teach kids how to be more body positive. In the Dove x Steven Universe project, Sugar wanted to ensure the characters know that whatever issues they’re struggling with (self-esteem, constant comparison) are not their fault. “It’s the responsibility of the bully or of society to be lifting these pressures,” says Sugar, who worked on the scripts with Phillippa Diedrichs, a UK-based research psychologist whose work focuses on body image and how to better reach children with messages of acceptance and positivity. “A lot of times we’ll write about things that we needed to see when we were children.”
After the first campaign video was posted—which was about appearance-related teasing and bullying—fans posted comments like “This is amazing. Thank you Dove and Cartoon Network” and “OMG I LOVE THIS THANK YOU!!!!! I LOVE DOVE and I hope this inspires kids!!” The characters in the clips deal with issues the same way they do on the series—with love, support and understanding. And it makes perfect sense that a brand that bills itself as championing “real beauty” would want to align with the very real way that Steven Universe portrays its characters and storylines.
“Not everything is happy-go-lucky all the time—the show displays so many ways of dealing with stress and trauma,” says Calvin LeBlanc, a 24-year-old from Nova Scotia who identifies as genderqueer and uses the pronoun “they.” Le Blanc loves Steven Universe because they see so many complex elements of themselves in almost every character.
Danny Vidal, a 28-year-old student from Toronto who identifies as a cis-gender gay man, appreciates that Steven Universe doesn’t try to shove lessons down viewers’ throats. “The show is obviously queer-positive, but doesn’t obsess over it as a central theme,” he says. “There’s no cliché coming-out story, no classic homophobic antagonists… The queerness is just naturally infused into the storylines.” In season 4, for example, Pearl meets and hits it off with a female-presenting rocker who gives Pearl her phone number. And during the episode in which Ruby and Sapphire get married, one of the standout lines is from a song sang by Steven: “There’s an awful lot of awful things we could be thinking of, but for just one day let’s only think about love. ”
The show’s overwhelmingly queer-positive vibe is very obviously a result of Sugar’s own experiences with gender identity. “It’s so much a part of my work,” Sugar says. “I’m writing and drawing about relationships that I’ve had. To have that resonate with the LGBTQ2IA+ community has been an incredible experience for me, because I have felt seen in a way that I had never felt before.”
Vidal points out that it takes someone like Sugar to handle these issues in such a nuanced, realistic way. “I think many members of the LGBTQ2IA+ community are more used to facing difficult questions and complex emotions, because they’ve had to figure out who they are in the face of social heteronormativity,” he says. “It’s clear in Rebecca’s art that she’s thought about these things a lot—life and love—and has come out the other end incredibly open-minded.”
Sugar gets why adults like LeBlanc and Vidal are so into her children’s show: “I think that millennials have very little tolerance for bullshit and really care about authenticity,” she says. She’s right. Liv Moir, a 24-year-old woman from Nova Scotia who identifies as pansexual, appreciates the show for its willingness to delve into emotional situations like panic attacks and dealing with death. “We’ve only cracked the ice on sexuality and identity being shown in the open on television,” she says. “This is the new normal: Diversity and inclusion.”
The new normal for Sugar now includes writing a Steven Universe television movie while season 5 of the series is on hiatus. It’s unclear when the show will pick up again—it looks like season 6 will start next year—but one thing is definitely certain: I know I’ll be tuning in.
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