Steven Universe: a model of queer representation

‘Steven Universe’ is a popular cartoon on the US-based channel Cartoon Network, which is at once delightful, musical, emotional and pure fun. Among other things, the show is about how the eponymous main character, Steven, unravels the legacy of his mother, Rose, who was an intergalactic alien matriarch imperial overlord turned into a guerrilla war-criminal revolutionary liberator (yes, it’s a children’s show). Beyond its own merits, it is also a model for queer representation in media in how it depicts lesbian and non-binary characters.

In recent years, there has been a rise in LGBT+ characters in media, as confirmed by findings such as the annual “Where We Are on TV” report. Steven Universe, however, is at the pinnacle of queer representation for various reasons. Many shows with LGBT+ characters tend to relegate said characters to minor roles, rarely exploring in depth how their LGBT+ experiences are unique, or even universal, to all people. In contrast, all of the lesbian and non-binary characters in Steven Universe are main characters, and therefore get more airtime and exposure, which aids in the normalisation of lesbian and non-binary identities.

These characters’ identities go beyond tokenism because they make sense within the show and serve a purpose. The ways in which they negotiate and express their identities fit perfectly into wider narrative arcs and into their own character development. The lesbian couple Ruby and Sapphire celebrated their wedding in a recent episode, and to have a lesbian wedding airing on Cartoon Network is in itself unprecedented. Their wedding is not a random tokenistic display but, rather, a result of their relationship growing stronger after a momentary break-up directly induced by a major plot twist in the show. The other highs and lows in the relationship of this adorable lesbian couple are also intimately linked with the quandaries and battles that form the show’s plot.

“Many shows with LGBT+ characters tend to relegate said characters to minor roles, rarely exploring in depth how their LGBT+ experiences are unique, or even universal, to all people.”

Another character on the show, Pearl, has an entire episode dedicated to her coping with her unacknowledged, unrequited love for a woman named Rose. Beyond normalising the feelings and experiences of a queer woman, this episode again makes sense in the broader narrative arc of characters dealing with the legacy of Rose, as well as Pearl’s specific character development in becoming more independent and confident. Pearl finally reconciles with Rose’s chosen lover, Greg, as well as with her own complex feelings towards Rose. Indeed, several episodes later, Pearl is suggested to have moved on from her trauma, having obtained the phone numbers of women in a suggested romantic context.

The importance of the explicitness of the show’s queer characters cannot be downplayed. While subtext is fun to speculate about, having explicitly queer characters reinforces the legitimacy of these identities and also provides a more fulfilling experience for the audience. Where characters are only implicitly queer, questions about tokenism and general frustration are sure to follow suit. J. K. Rowling, for instance, seems to have developed a penchant for assigning minority statuses to characters after the end of her beloved series. But has anybody who has grown up with Harry Potter ever thought to themselves: “Wow, the ambiguous and implicit nature of the sexuality of a great wizard like Dumbledore really helped me feel more comfortable about my gayness”? I doubt it.

Steven Universe takes things a step further by also having non-binary characters as well, which is exceedingly rare in media. I, as a non-binary individual, find it extremely difficult to recall having come across any non-binary characters in the shows or books that I have consumed. The character Stevonnie, who uses they/them pronouns, is similar to the queer characters mentioned above in that they are also a main character on the show and that their identity ties into the unfolding of the story. Stevonnie is actually a “fusion” of a girl and a boy (Steven), due to the latter’s magical alien powers. They maintain the personalities of the two children involved while still being their own, distinct individual. Their debut and very existence mark a significant milestone in the show because it exemplifies the character growth of the main character, Steven, and his changing magical powers.

Concurrent with the slow rise in representation of minority identities in the media, there has also emerged a debate about whether creators and actors should depict characters with minority identities that they themselves do not have. We can make the case that queer representation is more genuine, realistic and profound when done by queer creators. The show’s creator, Rebecca Sugar, is herself openly bisexual and uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, and this might be a reason why her characterisation of queer and non-binary characters is so wonderful and believable. Additionally, queer characters benefit both creator and audience; Sugar, during the 2018 San Diego Comic Convention, revealed: “I am fine with being perceived as a woman but it’s not really something I identify with internally […] The characters in the show have been a wonderful way to express myself because I think, like many of the Gems, they don’t mind being seen as women, and it’s sort of part of their experience, but it’s not something they really think about, about themselves. That’s very much how I feel.”

“The lesbian couple Ruby and Sapphire celebrated their wedding in a recent episode, and to have a lesbian wedding airing on Cartoon Network is in itself unprecedented.”

A quibble I have, if I must have one, is that the abovementioned characters are too perfectly normalised and therefore unrealistic. Am I supposed to believe that every single person in town was supportive of Ruby and Sapphire’s lesbian wedding without a trace of homophobia? Or that everybody uses they/them pronouns for Stevonnie without ever misgendering them? The fact that the show does not depict homophobia or transphobia is an important consideration, but not necessarily a negative one. As members of the LGBT+ community, we live in a world filled with hate (and hate crimes) and we know that already. Having a space full of love and lacking in hate is beneficial for our sanity and allows us to imagine what a better world might look like, using ideal ones like that of Steven Universe.

Representation matters because it reassures us about our own identities. This is particularly important during our formative years when we figure out what is normal and right in this world, which makes the fact that Steven Universe is a show intended for children and teenagers especially laudable and significant. Here is a show that teaches children that it is okay to be a girl who likes other girls or a person that uses they/them pronouns, a lesson that reaffirms our humanity for both those who belonging to the community and those who do not. The show’s commercial success also serves as a rebuttal to common arguments that characters with minority identities do not sell or appeal to a larger audience. Depending on how exactly one defines a main character, the majority of the cast of Steven Universe could be said to be lesbian or non-binary. A show like Steven Universe is a rare gem indeed, and should be the model of meaningful queer representation that all creators have in mind.

Image Credit: Cartoon Network