The adult version of the “getting picked last for the kickball team” exclusion nightmare might now be “falling behind on pop culture.” With so many choices, whether on TV or the sprawling galaxy of the Internet, there’s just no way to stay on top of everything without fully losing your mind. So you make a choice: Either you care enough to tap into as much as you can, or you tap out. Either way, though, the odds are that you’re going to miss out on something you might like a great deal. The incredible wealth of options just makes it impossible to know.
This is what happened to me with Steven Universe. The cartoon, saturated in purples and greens, premiered in November 2013, but it only started creeping into my periphery earlier this year. All I could tell from the fervent enthusiasm surrounding it was that it came from a former Adventure Time writer and artist, it starred a literally starry-eyed boy, and also, maybe there were some aliens?
The Steven Universe fandom is made up of true believers who will not hesitate to tell you to watch this show with a spark in their eyes that is both inspiring and a little frightening in its fervency. This phenomenon tends to rear its head with kids’ shows that take care to layer adult themes throughout the wacky mishaps, like Adventure Time, or any of the 90s Nicktoons set to reappear on Nickelodeon this fall.
While at first it’s startling to see people this excited about a kids’ cartoon, it’s with good reason as far as Steven Universe goes. In just an 11-minute running time, each episode of the series manages to say something new, thoughtful, and heartfelt about huge themes like power, responsibility, waning childhood, sex, and gender.
Steven Universe is about a boy, his larger-than-life adventures, and his intergalactic aunts.
Steven Universe (Zach Callison) lives in Beach City with his hippie musician father Greg (Tom Scharpling) and three de facto aunts. Those aunts, Pearl (Deedee Magno), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), and Garnet (R&B singer Estelle), are part of an immortal alien race called “The Crystal Gems.”
Each Gem has her own set of skills and powers, which are used both in daily life and to ward off threats to Earth from otherworldly creatures and other, more nefarious Crystal Gems. Pearl is the intense one with a laser focus, Amethyst is the outgoing wild card, and Garnet is the steady voice of reason and embodiment of “chill.” Together, they make a strong team, as both Gem warriors and Steven’s parental figures.
Steven is himself part Crystal Gem, thanks to his mother, Rose Quartz, who only shows up in flashbacks. The Crystal Gems are supposed to be immortal, since they can endlessly regenerate, but Rose Quartz had to give up her own form in order to give birth to half-human Steven. (As you can imagine, episodes featuring Rose Quartz are some of the show’s most emotionally devastating.) Steven is the only human-Gem hybrid we know of, which means that both he and the Gems have to learn about his specific powers as they come.
While many cartoons have vivid, fantastical worlds, only a few are willing to tell an ongoing, serialized story with a consistent, fully realized back-story. Steven and the Crystal Gems are constantly discovering new things about their reality and themselves. Every time someone uncovers a new detail, it makes the world even richer and more satisfying to visit. The reality Steven and the Crystal Gems inhabit is so multifaceted, in fact, that series creator Rebecca Sugar has been writing a full Guide to the Crystal Gems (available on October 6). It’s written from Steven’s non-omnipotent point of view, though, which means there will be plenty of mysteries left unsolved.
Steven Universe is the hyperactive, deeply genuine cousin to Adventure Time
Steven Universe shares its predecessor’s love of vivid colors and bizarre characters, but the correlation between the shows holds true beyond aesthetics.
Steven was created by Rebecca Sugar (her real, perfect cartoonist name), a formerAdventure Time writer and storyboard artist. Sugar is Cartoon Network’s first and only solo female show creator, as well as a songwriter whose melodies pop up throughout the series. One of her songs even opens the show itself.
(An extended version that was a sensation at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con can be seen here. Just try not to smile at, “we’ll win the fight and go out for pizzas.”)
Like Adventure Time‘s Finn, Steven Universe is an excitable boy prone to wild adventures. Even as Steven struggles to understand his background, he remains a realistic and endearing portrayal of being a kid. He’s curious, empathetic, impatient, and emphatically silly — the walking, talking embodiment of “infectious enthusiasm.”
Steven also has an affectionate network of human friends. Beach City is filled with diverse families, small-business owners, and self-proclaimed weirdos. But Steven’s preferred company outside his immediate family is Connie Maheswaran, a hyper-intelligent girl who finds a kindred spirit in Steven. Their friendship started as a crush on Steven’s end, but they have since formed a rock-solid bond that runs on fierce loyalty, mutual understanding, and giddy fun.
Steven Universe is also a fan of emotional gut-punches that sneak up on you from within otherwise absurd storylines (an Adventure Time staple). When you start an episode, it’s impossible to know whether you’re in for a delightfully bonkers romp or a gut-wrenching meditation on love and loss. Quests that start off like video games can end in a slapstick fight, or a bruising lesson in disappointment. A creature that tags along could teach the value of responsibility, or it might just be a bizarre nuisance. Exploring a forgotten storage locker can reveal dated knick-knacks, or a tender reminder of how much Steven is like the mother he’ll never know.
All along the way, though, Steven has invaluable backup in the Crystal Gems.
The Crystal Gems are a whole lot of fun, but they also provide some of the most interesting portrayals of sexuality and gender on television.
Cartoons ostensibly meant for kids have always threaded in adult themes, whether it’s a NickToon exploring what it means to be different or Pixar teaching kids about depression. But Steven Universe goes even further. It weaves a diverse representation of sexuality, gender, and even sex into the very fabric of the show without wringing its hands about it. As in life, all that stuff is just there. Steven Universe naturalizes the issues many shows would rather sensationalize in a way that’s clever, but not condescending to its younger audience.
One of the more unusual aspects of the show is the concept of “fusion.” When Crystal Gems choose to dance together, they morph into a single being that is an entirely different entity. When Pearl and Amethyst fuse, for example, they become Opal (voiced by Aimee Mann, because why not). Garnet and Amethyst become Suglite (voiced by Nicki Minaj, because sometimes dreams do come true). Every dance is unique, and every fusion draws something different from each character to create a brand new Gem.
Some of the show’s most poignant episodes are thanks to these fusions. There’s the time Steven accidentally fuses with Connie, leading to a rollercoaster night that leaves “Stevonnie” alternately exhilarated and terrified by the world they encounter, including the boys and girls that flirt with them. (While the other Gem fusions are coded as female, the show leaves Stevonnie’s gender relatively ambiguous.)
Sugar talked about Stevonnie as a “metaphor for all the terrifying firsts in a first relationship.” She went on to discuss this episode as exploring the sudden body horror that comes with puberty, like “how it feels to have a new power over people, or to suddenly find yourself objectified, all for seemingly no reason since you’re still just you.” When the Gems meet Stevonnie, they’re excited, but they also make sure to discuss what fusing means and how to do it responsibly. It’s one of the best, most unique versions of “The Talk” I’ve ever seen in pop culture, and it came from Technicolor alien warriors.
Other times, Gems fuse to become stronger against a particularly powerful foe. One episode even gets into thorny issues of consent when Pearl tricks Garnet into fusing with her against a phony enemy. Pearl’s desperation to fuse with Garnet stems from a deep loneliness that she’s felt ever since Steven’s mother died. The way Pearl talks about her loving, protective relationship with Rose Quartz suggests a deeper connection than just friendship, and so the loss was a devastating one. When she dances and fuses with Garnet, Pearl feels like she belongs to something bigger than herself — which is a feeling she desperately misses.
This deception cuts particularly deep for Gems because the show treats fusions as the ultimate show of trust. As not-so-vague metaphors for sex and intimacy, the fusion dances are incredibly personal, and often charged with an electric jolt of eroticism. Forcing a fusion is therefore an incredible betrayal. Garnet, furious and distraught, refuses to speak to Pearl for several episodes. What could have been a one-off lesson of the week instead becomes a much more emotionally resonant arc that truly sells the gravity of what’s been done.
One of the show’s best reveals (and herein lies a spoiler warning) is that Garnet is actually a fusion of Ruby and Sapphire. Even further: Ruby and Sapphire choose to remain fused together as Garnet rather than stay apart, because they’re in love. After laying down so much subtext, the show came right out and confirmed that Steven’s universe is an abundantly queer one.
Their preference of remaining fused means we only meet Ruby and Sapphire a couple of times. Still, their reunion after being forced apart is a joyous series standout. AsAutostraddle put it:
When we talk poetically about marriage, we say that two become one. When we say that soul mates find each other, we say that it’s like two parts making one whole. This is what’s we were witnessing here.
Also, Estelle gets to sing about it while kicking another Gem’s ass, which is pretty much the best.
In a fantastic essay about the largely heterosexual sci-fi landscape, Brandon Nowalk wrote at The A.V. Club about how the genre professes to be “speculative” while refusing to be so with sexuality. “To be an LGBTQ fan of sci-fi TV is to suffer the recurring rigmarole,” he writes. “Of course producers would love to feature LGBTQ characters if only they could figure out how to do that without making it a whole thing.”
Even in a world populated by Gem warriors, acid-spitting alien centipedes, and space incubators, the most startling thing about Steven Universe might just be how it refuses to be startled by its more diverse portrayals of sex, sexuality, and gender. There’s nothing self-congratulatory about including Ruby and Sapphire’s love story, Pearl’s devotion to Rose Quartz, or any generally queer content. It’s there because that’s who these characters are. And really, it’s just exciting to watch a show that takes advantage of the literally infinite possibilities the sci-fi genre presents, when so many others have stopped themselves short.
Above all, Steven Universe shows that there’s no one way to be a family.
The show’s ability to balance dozens of characters, conflicts, backstories, and mythologies is impressive, but Steven is the anchor of this vast world. His growing pains and triumphs are what ground and connect everything else, and it’s not just because he’s the titular character. Everyone on this show, whether alien aunt or surly teen manning the donut shop, thinks Steven is just the greatest.
As he learns how to be a better person (and Gem), Steven never once questions having four parental figures, nor bats an eye when it turns out that one of them is a relationship unto herself, nor gets weirded out by his psychic lion friend (long story).
He never rejects his unusual upbringing, because to him, it’s always been his reality. And why should he question it, as long as he is loved?
Steven Universe‘s first 35 episodes are currently available on Hulu Plus. Additional episodes can be found on Cartoon Network’s website, with new episodes airing most Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. Eastern.