CATEGORY: TV Show
OVERVIEW: Steven Universe is an ongoing animated show created by Rebecca Sugar for Cartoon Network. The series focuses on titular character Steven Universe, a young boy whose deceased mother was the leader of a group of magical aliens known as the Crystal Gems.
From left to right: Pearl, Amethyst (bottom), Garnet (top), Steven
As the youngest member of the Crystal Gems, Steven helps his mentors/guardians – Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl – protect his hometown of Beach City and the rest of the world from other magic aliens. Over the course of the series, Steven discovers his powers as a human/gem hybrid and learns more about the history of both the gems and his mother.
SYNOPSIS: We are living in a golden age of animated television. The stigma that animation is something “kiddy” or “immature” is fading away as more and more shows keep pushing the boundaries of what we thought was possible for the medium. I don’t mean that in the sense that animation is becoming more vulgar and adult-oriented, although such shows do exist and execute their tone amazingly (looking at you, Rick and Morty). I mean that shows that are perfectly suitable for all ages are dealing with issues that most parents can’t even comfortably discuss with their children, and they’re doing it in ways that are not only “clean” but also open the minds of adults and children alike to reconsider how we live our lives. Among this era of progressive, thought-provoking animation, Steven Universe stands as its crowning jewel.
Sexuality, depression, emotional abuse, self-loathing, anxiety, abusive relationships, sexual consent – these are only a few of the elements that Steven Universe tackles in its first season alone. Most networks wouldn’t even think of allowing mature subjects in children’s programming, but the creators of Steven Universe have cleverly used loopholes to get past censorship, primarily through the use of allegory.
The most common example is fusion, a technique where two gems combine into a new gem that is both a combination of their personalities and an entirely new entity. Fusion is meant as a stand in for both the act of sex and for the emotional connection of a relationship (sometimes it is solely the latter due to the former being inappropriate for the situation, like the fusion between Steven and his friend Connie). Through fusion, the writers can emphasize relationship issues like consent, mutual understanding, and trust without having to avoid the concept of a healthy sexual relationship altogether.
The act of fusion is done through a synchronized dance, varying depending on the gems involved.
Another loophole that the writers exploit is the lack of gender in gem characters; although all gems are female in form and refer to each other with the pronoun “she”, they are technically genderless aliens. This lets the creators establish explicit homosexual relationships without having to pretend that the characters are simply “close friends” or any of the other typical censorship regulations. This is a huge step forward in child-appropriate programming, and the creators deserve credit just for managing to maneuver around network censors to create positive homosexual figures for children.
Pearl and Rose about to fuse
For all this talk about how progressive the show is, how does it stand up simply as a show? Incredibly well. Steven is an absolutely delightful protagonist. A lot of bubbly, optimistic child characters can come off as annoying or self-righteous, but Steven has a perfect balance of innocence and charm that never fails to get a smile. More importantly, Steven is constantly growing, and the events of the series push him to change as he realizes that the world isn’t as bright and happy as he first thought. While he learns from and adapts to intense and sometimes incredibly dark trials, he always manages to maintain a tender and loving heart that gives the show a huge amount of appeal.
Each of the Crystal Gems are complex and engaging, and each one has a different dynamic with Steven. Pearl, for example, was hopelessly in love with Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz. Since Steven’s birth resulted in Rose’s “death” (it’s complicated), Pearl has some unresolved resentment towards him. However, she also recognizes Steven’s connection to Rose, both as her child and as the last “gift” that Rose left for her. This creates a lot of inner conflict as she protects Steven and teaches him everything he needs to know about the history and culture of the gems.
Pearl holding the scabbard to Rose's sword
Amethyst’s conflict deals less with her connection to Steven and more with her self-image. As the youngest member of the Crystal Gems (excluding Steven, who’s half human), Amethyst often feels inferior to the others both as a fighter and as a member of their species. This leads her to have some volatile reactions to criticism and change, and over the course of the series she struggles to find her place as a member of the team. Despite her issues, Amethyst have a positive impact on Steven, teaching him to relax and trust his instincts, making her sort of the antithesis to Pearl’s rigid structure.
Garnet is by far the most stable member of the team, as well as the most powerful. While usually stoic and unreadable, she is extremely affectionate towards Steven and acts as his most avid supporter through his development. I won’t discuss her flaws too much since it would spoil a huge part of the first season, but her mysterious and quiet demeanor does result in Steven being left in the dark in situations where he probably should have been enlightened.
More characters are introduced as the series goes on, the most important being Steven’s human father Greg Universe and a young girl who Steven befriends named Connie. Greg is a wonderful foil to the “deadbeat dad” stereotype; while not financially successful (he works at a car wash and lives in his van), Greg is hugely supportive of Steven and does everything in his power to ensure that his son is happy and well-adjusted. Connie has a more traditional life than Steven, being pushed by her parents to focus on her academics and career success, so she helps keep the show grounded in reality to some extent. Her relationship with Steven is sweet because they both are so fascinated by each other; Steven has been somewhat detached from “regular” people due to being raised by the Crystal Gems, and Connie is obviously amazed at all the magic and adventure in Steven’s life. While episodes focused on human characters often don’t usually progress the plot, they serve to remind the viewer that there is a place for the messages and themes of the show within the real world.
Greg and Connie
There are plenty of other characters I could list, but I’ll only discuss one more, since he is literally the only problem I have with the show. Lars, a teenage doughnut-shop employee, is obviously meant to act as the antithesis to Steven. He’s hateful, snarky, and just a general jerk to everyone around him, even the few who consider themselves his friends. At first I was okay with his presence because I figured that the writers would give him some sort of development into a decent character, but three seasons in he’s still a complete jackass who’s practically impossible to feel attachment towards. Steven seems to believe there is something redeemable in him, but honestly, I fail to see it
Like a lot of cartoons, the first season of Steven Universe is kind of slow and episodic, letting the audience get a feel of the show’s vibe while slowly pushing the plot forward. Most of the first season involves Steven fighting some kind of gem-based monster or visiting a location important to gem culture, with only loose connections between them. It can be a little frustrating, especially when the audience learns something huge that changes the way we understand the characters, only to go back to Steven making T-shirts of his dad. That said, I don’t think there are many “pointless” episodes, as most maintain the show’s tone while presenting dilemmas for Steven to deal with. And when a secret is revealed, it shakes up the entire show.
A lot of people talk about Gravity Falls and how great the mystery was in it, but Steven Universe is starting its fourth season and we’re still getting hit with bombshells regarding the Crystal Gems and their history. I’m not going to reveal anything, but let’s just say that there were moments that made me question if the main characters might be the actual villains. Any show that can make me question the morality of the protagonist and his allies is doing something right in the plot twist department. And again, the show doesn’t hold back on addressing some dark topics. A lot of episodes end up with the characters suffering severe psychological damage that has to be addressed later on. It always manages to get back to its hopeful, positive tone, but there’s always a hint of danger that comes from knowing that something twisted is going on off-screen.
On a technical level, Steven Universe is just pleasant to watch. A lot of settings are made in warm, soft colors, and the music is typically very upbeat and relaxing. It obviously changes for more intense sequences – and don’t get me wrong, there are some very dark and disturbing moments in this show – but for the most part it’s visually and audibly soothing. There are several musical numbers sung by the characters themselves that range from adorable to heart-wrenching. An entire episode in season 3 is done as a musical, and it’s one of the most beautifully made episodes in the series. There are a few weird animation problems on occasion, especially early on, but they’re easily overlooked.
Above all else, Steven Universe is a show about love, and it drives that message home in more ways than I would have thought possible from any show, much less a child-friendly cartoon. Love for family, friends, lovers, strangers, enemies, love of self and love for life – they’re all presented in a way that doesn’t feel preachy or sanctimonious. It feels natural, and I think that’s what makes Steven Universe such an incredible show. We should be able to recognize our weaknesses, out flaws, as well as the flaws of others, but understanding them should only push us to love stronger, not judge. Fun, serious, heart-warming, heart-breaking, intense, pleasant, and just all around enjoyable, Steven Universe is an incredible show that hits every mark, and aside from a minor character and a few episodes that lack direction, this show is essentially flawless.