Content warning: Minor spoilers for Steven Universe
When it comes to queer representation through media, we invariably turn to shows that focus on landmark movements, and the ones that normalise non-normative identities and sexualities; both working in an empowering manner, making a political statement. A peculiar feature of such media is that it is limited to a certain age group, mostly to legal adults. Anything related to the representation of queer folks is never considered “suitable content” for children, always perceived as a corruptive influence. It has been virtually impossible to come across positive queer representation in cartoon shows until a few years ago.
Rebecca Sugar, the first woman to head a show in Cartoon Network’s history brought out ‘Steven Universe’ in the year 2013 which has been hailed as a hallmark of queer representation. Primarily aimed at children, the show found a home with adults and particularly queer and transgender people. Sugar made it clear that she did not want to make a statement, but just introduce non-normative identities and sexualities to children at an early age, focusing on normalisation. Another similar show was ‘Adventure Time’, on which Rebecca Sugar briefly worked before switching full-time to Steven Universe. Adventure Time’s portrayal of a lesbian relationship was riddled with threats of censorship so much so that they had to wait 10 years until the finale to show a kiss between two female characters in the fear that it might be cancelled if they do so. Conservative lobbies, political organisations and parents often create moral panic over ‘exposing’ children to queer characters at an early age.
Steven Universe had it different from it’s beginning itself. It employed magic and fantasy to convey queerness at multiple levels through which Steven Universe cements itself as progressive, positive and radical. First, Rebecca Sugar’s world of Steven Universe is diverse and queer. Most of the main characters – known as ‘gems’, are of the female gender, making all the “superheroes” in the show females, a first for any such show. Steven U’s life history also portrays ‘gender dysphoria’ felt by transgender people along with issues of identity, in a very creative manner. Steven’s mother – Rose Quartz gave up her physical form so that Steven could have her gem. As a half-human boy-half gem, Steven embodies a male body but due to his mother’s gem, everyone mistakes him as Rose Quartz leading Steven to assert his identity as ‘Steven’ time and again.
Second, the show doesn’t play around academic jargon. There is no mention of the words ‘queer’, ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘transgender’ or ‘sexuality’, which can mean lack of political correctness but Rebecca Sugar’s delicate approach works on normalisation, leading to affirming representation without any form of ‘Queer Baiting’. The phenomena of fusion (sometimes between two or multiple gems, or between a human and a gem – where they fuse to become a new identity), is distinct to Rebecca Sugar’s show, having aspects of non-binary identities as well. There is a moment in the show when a fusion is referred to using ‘they/them’ pronouns, which is subtle yet powerful. Interestingly, fusion also takes place between gems of different kinds, hinting at diversity within relationships.
Third, characters in Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe have emotional-depth, and they are not one-dimensional beings. The show’s portrayal of how people struggle through and move out of toxic relationships, the desire between queer people, being emotionally vulnerable, impact on mental health through different incidents is commendable. Steven Universe comes off as a very mature, grounded and responsible show. When Steven is engaged with adventure, the show also focuses on the impact of such dangers on his mental health, why therapy is crucial and how love wins in the end.
In terms of character, Garnet (a fusion between two gems – Ruby and Sapphire) is the embodiment of a lesbian relationship. The loving relationship between Pearl and Rose Quartz is heart-warming as well, it is only a shame that just an ‘embrace’ between both of them was cut from the screening of a particular episode in the United Kingdom. Steven Universe embraces femininity without losing any of his masculinity. Not only does he give a new definition to masculinity, but it also follows up on the definition given by bell hooks which emphasised on a sense of self that empowers us from within, a far cry from the ‘adventurer’ masculinity that is based on violent and often destructive powers. Steven, a very empathetic person, possesses a shield, and prefers to talk on common grounds to solve conflicts. He is also known for healing corrupt gems or wounded humans. Even though the show has it’s share of entertaining action sequences, the fact that violence is never used to hurt anyone is another peculiarity.
Rebecca Sugar also provided the bulk of the music, full of simple yet deep lyrics supplemented by catchy tunes. Through the music, the focus is on complex emotions, character development, queer love and positive aspects of mental health. One particular song ‘Here comes a thought’, is a quick rescue session from overthinking and anxious thoughts. The voices for most of the characters were also done by mostly women of colour.
A significant amount of scholarship exists on the analysis of the show. Although there was a fair share of criticism too. Some viewers have criticised ‘gems’ as being coded as women of colour with stereotypical notions, and some depictions had racist undertones. While watching and enjoying the show for it complex yet beautiful diversity in terms of gender and sexuality, we should also be wary of the criticisms that we come across. Rebecca Sugar’s show acts as an agent of socialisation, especially for young kids. Even though schools and parents might fail to teach children humanity, creative people always find awesome ways. The show is a safe space where people can find and affirm themselves, and at the same time resist heteronormative narratives and structures that oppress them. The very idea of Steven’s family breaks all the norms and conventions set up by society.
Featured image source: RollingStone.com