‘Steven Universe’ Is a Miracle You Should Watch
Cartoon Network’s lovely, progressive animated series is truly what the world needs right now
There’s very little that’s perfect in this life. Careers, relationships, snack foods — all have their share of disappointments. But once in a while, you’ll encounter something genuinely sublime. Something so good it seems unreal that it actually exists, or that human beings, flawed as they are, could have possibly created it.
This is how I feel about Steven Universe.
The animated series is getting its first TV movie on Cartoon Network on September 2, Labor Day, so now is as good a time as any for people to learn about this little miracle, created by Rebecca Sugar in 2013. It’s about the titular Steven, who lives with and helps the Crystal Gems — Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl — three otherworldly beings who have sworn to defend the Earth. It’s a very basic premise, and when the show started, it was seemingly much more interested in comedy than action, which was fine because the show can be riotously funny. (I present exhibit A: “Watermelon Steven.”)
I say “seemingly” because Sugar had something else in mind for the show from the very beginning, starting with a robust backstory that was slowly and strategically revealed over the years. It started with the revelation that Steven is half-human and half-Gem, and his Gem mother Rose Quartz knowingly let herself die so that Steven could be born. Then we learned that the Crystal Gems — Rose, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl — are protecting the world from other Gems, and rebelling from their empire to save Earth and its inhabitants from destruction. Eventually, Steven discovers his mother might not have been nearly as good and noble as people had told him.
But more important than the show’s plot are its themes, which I think are best summed up as “what is noblest in humanity.” Acceptance, tolerance, love, and empathy are built directly into the show’s DNA. While the other Crystal Gems may do battle when necessary, Steven always tries to resolve conflicts through mutual understanding, whether he’s dealing with a mindless monster or giant gem emperors who want Earth destroyed. (It’s worth noting the Crystal Gems can all manifest weapons, but Steven only uses a shield.)
I will contend that any kids’ entertainment that has so much emotional truth in it that it’s powerful enough to make tears come from my eyes is a heck of a good watch.
In particular, the show is marvelous for its inclusion of LGTBQ characters and their relationships, including romantic ones. It’s something Sugar says she’s had to fight for, but it’s a battle she seems to be winning, as last year Steven Universe featured the first-ever same-sex wedding in a kids’ animated series.
Without going too far down the rabbit hole, at some point it was revealed the main character Garnet was actually two Gems — Ruby and Sapphire — who loved each other so much they preferred to be a “fusion,” merging together to form a new, single being. In the episode “Reunited,” Ruby and Sapphire made their love “official” with the ceremony, turning into their Garnet form afterward. There’s no preachy lesson here about how people who love each other should be allowed to marry, no homophobic character who has to be shown the light — just a great story. There’s something profoundly powerful in how Steven Universe doesn’t try to teach lessons of tolerance and inclusivity, but instead presents them as facts.
This frees up the show to focus on its cast. Much more than monster-fighting or mystery-solving, Steven Universe is about its characters and their relationships — not just between Steven and the Crystals Gems, but with his friends, his enemies, the wide cast of characters that populate the show, and even with themselves.
My favorite example by far is the episode “Mr. Greg,” where a trip to the big city leads to Pearl revealing to Steven’s father Greg why she’s been so cold to him all these years. It’s because Pearl had been in love with Rose for eons, but it was always unrequited. When Rose fell for Greg, Pearl was jealous; when Rose knowingly and purposefully died so she could give birth to Steven, Pearl couldn’t help but blame Greg for being the catalyst of Rose’s destruction. Pearl can’t move on from a relationship she could only yearn for, and she no longer knows who she is without the woman she loved.
This is a very intense psychological dilemma to bring into a kids’ cartoon, but it’s done with consummate skill and heartbreaking beauty. This information is conveyed in a song sung by Pearl, voiced by Deedee Magno Hall, titled “It’s Over, Isn’t It” which made me bawl the first time I heard it. I will contend that any kids’ entertainment that has so much emotional truth in it that it’s powerful enough to make tears come from my eyes is a heck of a good watch.
There is still joy and happiness to be found, if we look. Even in cartoons targeted to tweens.
This is exactly what elevates Steven Universe from outrageously good to perfect. It has a melancholy that enriches the entirety of the series, making it more than the sum of its very, very good parts. It keeps the show from being saccharine; it gives the characters a wonderful depth which makes their journeys even more compelling, and it also gives the show stakes beyond the standard confrontations with bad guys. Sometimes Steven can’t help somebody, or meets someone who refuses to let Steven help them. Sometimes he remembers his episodic victories are just stalling tactics until the real dangers arrive.
Steven Universe even knows that sometimes things seem so oppressively terrible that being happy feels impossible — but that’s why it’s so important to find whatever joy you can, whenever you can, and celebrate it. This was all conveyed by another tremendous song, the impossibly timely “Let’s Only Think About Love” by Zach Callison’s Steven. I watch it whenever I start to feel overwhelmed by the nightmare of reality, which means I watch it a lot. It genuinely helps to remember that there is still joy and happiness to be found, if we look.
For me, this includes cartoons targeted to tweens. Steven Universe will always be one of those joys worth clinging to. It’s ultra-positive, it’s funny, it’s moving, it’s compelling, it’s too good to exist on this planet, and it’s a gem of a show that happens to star Gems.
It’s a miracle. And I’ll take all the miracles I can get.