Let’s have a chat about Steven Universe.
Steven Universe is two shows. One is about a supernatural boy living with his ass-kicking alien guardians, fighting the forces of evil that would literally tear the world apart; the other, a magic boy with a pink shield, teaching compassion and humanity to ancient otherworldly women made of precious stones.
But the fact that it doesn’t easily fit into the concept of a ‘girls’ or boys’ show is the awesome foundation on which this show is built.
The Premise (real quick)
Steven is the child of a human male and a Gem woman. He lives with three alien women – the Crystal Gems – who are part of a rebellion against their home planet. As Steven grows up he learns more about his mother and ancestry, developing his powers and helping the Gems to protect Earth.
The Crystal Gems
The Gems’ Homeworld comes across as a nightmarish dystopian oligarchy, ruled by the Diamonds. The rest of the gems are ranked in order of rarity and strength, from Crystals down to Pearls, which are mass-manufactured servant gems. Every gem has their pre-ordained role, and is expected to do nothing else – it’s like something Aldous Huxley would have written.
The more you learn about the Gems’ planet and society, the more impressive the Crystal Gems appear. Amethyst, the youngest, emerged on Earth and lived her first years in isolation; Pearl has learned to be her own Gem, rejecting her preordained life of servitude.
Love is Love
The third Gem, Garnet, is probably the most complex of the Crystal Gems. A fusion of two gems, she is an amalgamation of the aristocratic Sapphire and a standard Ruby soldier, who fall in love over the class divide. Despite the fact that Sapphire’s life is valued much more highly than Ruby’s, the two have a love so great that they can’t bear being apart – so they never are. Garnet is a unique combination, possessing both Sapphire’s stoicism and Ruby’s passion.
Pearl also has a great love – the now absent Rose Quartz, Steven’s mother. Her resentment for Steven’s father isn’t subtle, and there’s no attempt to shy away from the fact that what she felt for Rose wasn’t loyalty or admiration, but truly romantic love.
There are other shows which feature gay and lesbian relationships, although they are typically more subtle. Adventure Time and The Legend of Korra are both commendable for including lesbian relationships – Princess Bubblegum and Marceline in Adventure Time were obviously once an item, and Korra’s hand-holding and lingering looks with Asami have been confirmed as indication of their blossoming romance.
There are certainly other examples, although many of them require a little reading between the lines, usually thanks to restrictions set by less progressive networks.
Any amount of normalising non-conventional is commendable, but Steven Universe is hugely successful in being overt without making an issue of it. There’s no shock and horror from anyone that a woman could love another woman; it’s not a defining character trait or a point of contention. It just is.
Pick A Gender, Any Gender
When you first tackle Steven Universe, you might be unsure where to place it in terms of childrens’ cartoons. The protagonist is male, but his powers, in the form of a rose shield and healing spit, are traditionally feminine (within the standard fantasy adventure set-up). The Gems appear as humanoid females, but their bodies are an illusion, and gender an alien concept. It’s tempting to try and apply female qualities to the Gems, as we so often see male and female as binary opposites. By taking away the option of being male, we can more easily perceive the sliding scale of gender in all of its complexities.
Steven’s best friend Connie is another fantastic addition to the show, a remarkably intelligent young girl who becomes his fearless ally and sword-wielding protector. Their friendship is built on equality, and just like Garnet they work best together, becoming both the sword and the shield.
Steven Universe contains storylines about friendship and understanding, and others about monsters, horrible experiments and the desire to fight. It’s nowhere near as overtly female-oriented as the Powerpuff Girls, but also not as traditionally masculine as other fighting cartoons such as The Power Rangers. Frankly, it manages to toe the tightrope of gender neutrality better than any other show I can think of, even the incredible Adventure Time.
In times like these, it’s all too easy to feel that attitudes about women and homosexuality are becoming less progressive: that’s why it’s such a beautiful thing to see inclusivity and feminism in shows for children.
Steven Universe isn’t the first to introduce these concepts, it shouldn’t be the last, and – despite intervention from networks slowing progress – there does seem to be a greater level of acceptance moving forward.
If, like me, you dream of a world where gender or sexuality doesn’t define your character, I urge you to enjoy some Steven Universe.
Written by Jenny Mugridge
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