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Media Review: July 2020

The Steven Universe Universe

Steven Universe
Created by Rebecca Sugar
Produced by the Cartoon Network.
First season released July 7, 2013

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I was a huge fan of cartoons: getting up early on Saturday mornings to watch The Smurfs, rushing home from school to catch Voltron and Robotech, enduring marathons of Scooby-Doo when absolutely nothing else was on TV (I could have gone outside, but nah). Now that I am older, I still continue to watch cartoons, this time appreciating them with my teenage son. The past few years have brought about cartoons that feel richer and deeper in depth than my childhood shows. Some of them are reboots of those old shows; others are original stories, such as Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar, who had previously worked on Adventure Time (another great cartoon).

Steven Universe is about a teenage boy learning to come to terms with his bi-cultural identity—his father is human; his mother, Rose Quartz, was a sentient gem whose race had planned on terraforming the Earth for their own needs, destroying all life on it. Rose Quartz and other like-minded gems had formed a rebellious fighting group called the Crystal Gems to protect the Earth. Now the group is reduced to three gems—Pearl, Garnet, and Amethyst—who serve as Steven’s guardians along with his father. Rose Quartz gave up her physical form so that her gem could become part of Steven, imbuing him with magical powers, such as forming a pink bubble around him as a shield or healing gems through the power of good old-fashioned spit (not as gross as it sounds).

Embedded in the lighthearted humor are dark secrets—broken alien technology and unnatural phenomena litter the cartoon’s backgrounds, alluding to a gem war strong enough to scar the Earth. The Crystal Gems, despite being thousands of years old, are trying to cope with a world without Rose Quartz, who herself hid such a dangerous secret that when Steven discovers it, it changes the whole direction of the series. It also employs one of the best uses of foreshadowing I’ve ever seen, laying groundwork for a big reveal about Rose as early as the first episode. I had to watch the entire series over again just to see all the clues and hints Sugar and her team wove into the backstory, the plot, and even the music—seriously, I can do a whole article on the music of Steven Universe and how the show uses leitmotifs to reflect the personalities of the main characters. Pearl’s, for instance, is an elegant piano melody.

At the beginning of the series, the show feels like a typical superhero show. Steven tries to develop his powers, pesters the gems about their planet Homeworld, and develops friendships with the quirky citizens of his hometown Beach City. However, there are ways in which the show subverts standard gender conventions. Steven has no problem wearing a dress and makeup to fill in for a shy friend who doesn’t want to perform on stage. Both he and his father openly cry without being shamed. Most of the gems present as female or non-binary. Steven is raised by not one, but three female-presenting gems whom he looks up to and strives to emulate.

Then, there is fusion, an ability that the gems have that enables them to physically combine with each other to create an entire new form. Garnet, for instance, is a fusion of a Ruby and a Sapphire gem; her presence is taboo on Homeworld, as gems are supposed to only fuse with their own type. This can also be reflected in the characters’ leitmotifs, in that when the gems fuse, their leitmotifs also fuse to reflect the new gem they’ve become. When Pearl fuses with Amethyst, who is represented by drums, their signature songs combine into a heart-pounding, yet divine form, which reflects their fusion known as Opal.

Being a human/gem hybrid, Steven is unique in that he is able to form fusions with both humans and gems. The series usually focuses on the fusion formed by him and his best friend, Connie: the intersex being known as “Stevonnie.” This fusion is based on their deep friendship, whereas Garnet represents the romantic-partner love between Ruby and Sapphire. In this, the show uses fusion as a fantastic metaphorical vehicle on how relationships are built, be they familial, platonic friendship, or romantic. This is particularly important as the characters aren’t perfect. They have flaws, insecurities, and misunderstandings, as well as doing things that can harm the relationship. And the stronger the relationship, the more stable the fusion. In one episode, Pearl does something that breaks Garnet’s trust to the point that an upset Garnet collapses back into the individuals Ruby and Sapphire. Pearl is deeply remorseful and apologizes, but it takes a long time (or at least several episodes) before Garnet is able to trust her again, and later on, forgive her.

That’s one of the themes of the show: learning how to live in relationships and, if they’re broken, how to heal and forgive. Conversely, the worse a relationship is, the worse the fusion. There is an episode where Jasper, a powerful gem, coerces a smaller one, Lapis, to fuse. Their entire fusion is a battle of wills with the two chained to each other, their voices failing to merge into a single new voice, as healthy fusions usually do. Like Pearl’s transgression, it highlights the importance of consent in relationships. It even follows Lapis after she manages to finally break free of Jasper’s control. Later episodes have her dealing with the trauma, self-loathing, and the isolation she feels. Only through Steven and other gems’ persistent friendship does she finally forgive herself and start to heal.

I never thought a kid’s show would bring up issues of dealing with trauma and grief, and do it in a way that appeals to both children and adults. It’s hard to fit those elements into eleven-minute episodes, and sometimes the show does feel rushed, as if they’re trying to cram in too much story without giving the characters space to breathe. But I deeply appreciate the writers of the show diving into these hard subjects. The show doesn’t hand out answers to its mysteries all at once, but builds its story gradually while folding in themes about identity, relationships, queerness, gender roles, grief, and mental growth that are rich and nuanced, all set within gaming and geek culture with an amazing soundtrack.

Steven Universe ran for five seasons before concluding in January 2019. It was followed by the Steven Universe Movie and then a shorter sixth season called Steven Universe Future. The last is not a sequel, but is considered “a limited epilogue” that has a much darker tone than previous seasons. It follows an older Steven grappling with the question: What happens when everything is fixed and he is not needed anymore? It’s a bold step for a children’s show, in that it shows the hero struggling with his own problems after he saves the day for everyone else. Steven has built his entire identity on helping others and fixing the mistakes his mother made, unaware that he himself had built up enough trauma to have him spiraling down a dark path. And though a lot of Steven’s problems are indeed due to trauma, I also wonder if they’re due to Steven becoming more of a teenager. We had first met Steven when he was thirteen; the epilogue involves a time skip that now puts him at sixteen. His powers are erratic and uncontrollable; different parts of his body inflate, physically mirroring his inner turmoil. The interesting thing is that he spent the previous series trying to establish that he was not Rose Quartz, despite the fact that Rose’s gem gives Steven access to her powers and memories in such a way that the gems from Homeworld actually do think he’s his mother (in a different form). Yet in Future, he reacts to stress in similar ways as his mother did when she was younger: He is moody and irritable, tunes out his father and guardians’ advice, and occasionally has outbursts that wreck his environment. On the other hand, we get hints that Steven’s father also rebelled against his parents in his youth—not to the degree of having violent outbursts, but bad enough that he is now estranged from his parents.

Because this is a children’s show (actually, I would say Future at this point is more of a YA show), there is a happy ending. The same power that Steven employed at the end of the series is now employed for him: the power of love and friendship, thanks to the intervention of his friends and family. Angsty teenage issues aside, Steven is not a superhero, despite his magical powers. He is also human, and is just as prone to having flaws. While not completely cured, Steven does emerge healthier at the end, taking steps to work on things with the help of his family, who are willing to let him go and find himself. And that’s the other theme of the show—accepting and loving yourself, as well as forgiving your own faults.

Steven Universe Future is a perfect coda to the series. We don’t get all the questions answered—we never see Peridot fuse with Lapis, or learn what was in the locked trunk in Steven’s inner space. We don’t know how Steven will fare as he drives off at the end of the series, but that’s fine. Particularly now, as I shelter in place with the coronavirus sweeping through the world, Steven Universe reminds me that the future can be unknown and scary, but if you have people in your life who are able to love you despite your faults, you can face that future head-on.

Steven’s mother would be proud.

LaShawn M. Wanak

LaShawn M. Wanak has been writing speculative fiction stories professionally since 2006. Her works have appeared in the 2018 Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy AnthologyFireside MagazineFIYAH, and many others. She is the editor of GigaNotoSaurus and reviews books for Lightspeed Magazine. Writing stories keeps her sane. Also, pie. Visit her blog at tbonecafe.wordpress.com.