Thoughts on Steven Universe
One of the things I love about the internet and social media is finding new things to geek out about. In the cartoon realm, last time it was Avatar: The Last Airbender. This time, in no small part because of Amal El-Mohtar and Sunil Patel, it was Steven Universe. I’m going to try to keep this post relatively spoiler-free, but no promises about the comments.
How to summarize this show… It’s fantasy that morphs into science fiction. It’s a team of superpowered women (the Crystal Gems) and the titular character Steven, who’s half-Gem, half-human. It’s got action and humor and music and surprisingly complex worldbuilding and relationships and character development. It’s a show that embraces diversity in multiple dimensions. It’s at times over-the-top goofy, and then turns around and delivers stories as emotionally powerful as just about anything else on television.
There’s plenty of action, an evil space empire, monsters of the week, and lots of pulpy SF/F-style goodness, including a full-on dystopic society, clone-type servants, spaceships, robots, swords, teleportation platforms, an altered Earth, etc.
It’s also subversive and refreshing, challenging assumptions about family and romance and friendship and trust and gender and sexuality and beauty and love and so much more.
So after ConFusion, I came home and binge-watched the available episodes, catching up to the mid-point of the second season. Here are some of the things about this show that make me happy…
Let’s start with Rose Quartz, Steven’s mother. Rose was the leader of the Crystal Gems, who eventually fell in love with a human and gave up her physical form so Steven could be born/created. Not only is this woman portrayed as a warrior and the leader of the rebel Gems, she’s consistently treated as beautiful and beloved. Greg (Steven’s father) falls hard for her. The other Crystal Gems love her dearly. She’s beautiful, powerful, strong, and competent, and none of this is ever questions.
Then there are the rest of the Gems. Pearl is very slender. Amethyst is shorter and heavier. Steven himself is unapologetically plump. The whole show gives us a more realistic range of people’s shapes and sizes than anything else out there, and that’s never used as a source of cheap laughs. Every character is treated with respect for who they are, and every character is shown to be both strong and important to the team.
Race and Gender:
Sometimes people who argue that they’re “colorblind” about race will say something like, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, or purple.” It’s an obnoxious refrain, but it makes me wonder if the creators of the show deliberately decided to make the three Gems black, white, and purple. Steven and his father are white. Steven’s love interest Connie is Indian. (And also a pretty badass swordfighter and a great character in her own right.) Here are some of the secondary and background characters from the show:
As for gender, the show deliberately flips the usual script. Instead of a bunch of male Avengers and Black Widow, or a bunch of male Ninja Turtles and April, or a bunch of male Smurfs and Smurfette, we have a team of women and Steven. But the show goes deeper, challenging gender norms and roles on an ongoing basis. Steven is unashamedly emotional, celebrating and crying and running around with his feelings on his
sleeve belly button gem. When Steven and Connie fuse (it’s a Gem thing), they form Stevonnie, who goes by gender-neutral they/them pronouns. Stevonnie is accepted for who they are. Garnet at one point describes them as “perfect.”
I love that these characters have so much love and respect and affection for one another. They still argue and butt heads and get angry at one another at times, but underneath it all is so much love and caring. Whether it’s everyone’s love and protectiveness for Steven, Steven’s love for…well, pretty much everyone and everything, Steven and Connie’s developing relationship, the wonderful dynamic between Steven and his father, the pain of Pearl’s love and memories about Rose, the perfection that is Ruby and Sapphire… I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but it just makes me happy to watch.
Also, did I mention the canonical same-sex relationship?
- Lots of good, fun music. My favorite is Garnet’s song, “Stronger Than You,” from the Season One finale. (Possible spoilers at that link.) But I like that music is just a part of their lives, particularly Steven with his ukulele, and Greg (Steven’s father), the former sort-of-pro musician.
- The only episode I ended up stopping was the crossover with Uncle Grandpa. Though I loved the “our ship!” joke. Love a show that’s aware of fandom.
- The writers do a great job thinking about the implications of different kinds of Gem technology and their society. The exploration of fusion for good and evil is particularly wonderful. And powerful. Garnet’s reaction to discovering homeworld had experimented with forcing Gem fragments to fuse without their consent…whoa.
- Redemption arc! 🙂
- Watching Amethyst’s development and growth through flashbacks, particularly seeing her more feral aspects through Greg’s memories.
- All of Pearl’s backstory and struggles and stumbles and growth and development. The more you learn about her character’s history and place in Gem society, the more amazing a character she becomes.
- Plenty of silliness. I approve!
It’s an impressive feat of storytelling. Highly recommended.
For those who’ve seen it, what do you think? What do you love (or not love) about the show? What all have I missed here?