By Julia Kramer
“Steven Universe” is a very special show. It is a radiant light in this gloomy world. It regularly makes me laugh out loud, cry, and sing along to its catchy tunes. But here’s why I’m recommending it to you: it highlights queer relationships and subverts gender norms in a way that I have never seen on TV. This makes me love it more deeply and support it more publicly because it is paving the way for more radical representation in the media for all ages.
This show is the first animated series on Cartoon Network to be created solely by a woman: 30-year-old Rebecca Sugar, who is openly bisexual. It follows the adventures of the titular Steven and his family of Crystal Gems, who are aliens that have assumed the form of humanoid women to live on Earth and protect humans from other Gems who wish them harm. Steven is actually half-human and half-Gem — it’s not fully understood how he was born from his human father and Gem mother, but his mother, Rose Quartz, had to give up her form and essentially die to give birth to him. He is the first of his kind, born out of the only human/Gem relationship we know of, and he is the only male Gem in the universe. Crystal Gems do not use the concept of human gender, but they all use “she” pronouns and present as feminine. This automatically sets up the sexuality of their entire species as queer because any romantic relationship between Gems is read by viewers as a queer relationship.
One of the most important and recognized relationships in the show is between Ruby and Sapphire, characters who are so romantically entwined that they have fused together to create the character Garnet, one of Steven’s three main Gem guardians. Fusion occurs when two Gems meld their forms together into a larger single form, usually with the goal of increasing their powers in a fight. However, the goal is much different for Ruby and Sapphire, who have committed to each other romantically and live their lives 90 percent of the time fused together as Garnet. When Garnet “comes out” as a fusion, she sings the song “Stronger Than You,” which asserts “I’m made of love and it’s stronger than you” and makes me cry every single time I listen to it.
In addition to the blatantly queer relationships portrayed in Steven Universe, another significant boundary-pushing piece of the show is its main character’s subversion of gender norms. Steven is emotional, cries easily, and openly expresses his feelings to his friends and family, but he is also clearly the hero of the story and achieves his heroic status because of these stereotypically feminine traits and not in spite of them. His Crystal Gem powers that he inherited from his mother are defensive (a shield and healing powers) rather than offensive, like traditionally masculine weapons (swords and guns — which, significantly, are often phallic in appearance and penetrative in function).
“What’s radical about ‘Steven Universe’…is not that it shatters gender boundaries. It glides over them as if they didn’t exist in the first place,” writes JP Brammer in this fantastic Vulture article, which explains why this animated show is the queerest one on TV. The most incredible part of Steven’s gender subversions is that he is not chastised or teased for them — he is always accepted for who he is and is supported by his family and friends. This type of representation is crucial for children of all genders and sexualities, creating a positive atmosphere of support for kids to express themselves freely and explore their identities.