Minorities in cartoons: “Steven Universe”

This week’s minorities in cartoons entry is “Steven Universe,” a Cartoon Network animated series. Rebecca Sugar is the series’ creator. The series debuted in 2013.

Background

The show’s premise centers around the “Crystal Gems,” a trio of alien women who defend Earth (and the small oceanfront town they live in, “Beach City”) from various bizarre monster/alien threats. Their name come from the source of their myriad powers/abilities, the special gemlike stones built into their bodies.

While being near-immortal (they came to Earth thousands of years ago), they heavily hold at arm’s length interacting with the residents of the planet they protect. They view the “humans” as primitive, short-lived beings. (A hilarious example is toward the end of this Newsarama “interview” with several of the show’s characters.)

Cast

The Gems consist of:

  • Garnet (voiced by Estelle): the most stoic member of the team, as well as usually the leader (when not Pearl). Despite her reserved personality, she like the others cares much for Steven, and is often supportive of his efforts.
  • Amethyst (voiced by Michaela Dietz): the most extroverted adult Gem. Unlike Garnet and Pearl, she seems to completely enjoy engaging in human activities, such as an episode where she takes up pro wrestling. This includes eating, which the Gems don’t need to do, but Amethyst does anyway, enjoying food (and lots of it). Amethyst also has an outgoing, irreverent and playful personality, and enjoys horseplay with Steven.
  • Pearl (voiced by Deedee Magno): the most cerebral and cautious member of the team. Pearl acts the most motherly toward Steven, and also tries to teach him about the Gems’ heritage/use of his powers. She also likes to emphasize logical or tactical ways of solving problems.
  • Steven Universe (voiced by Zach Callison): the star of the show, Steven’s a young boy who’s half-human, half-Gem. His mother, “Rose Quartz,” was a Gem before passing away (or “gave up her physical form” as the show puts it) when Steven was born. Steven lives with the Gems, but often sees his nearby father, Greg Universe (a former musician now living out of his van). Steven wants to master his own Gem powers, but also acts very much as, well, a kid, often engaged in such interests as cartoons, video games, Internet quizzes, eating pizza, etc. He’s also quite driven by his feelings, and can be quite enthusiastic about new activities.

Other characters in the series include Steven’s best friend, Connie Maheswaran, a glasses-wearing girl who moves to town early in the series. Connie enjoys hanging out with Steven and reading, and has engaged with him in a few adventures.

There’s also a trio of teens Steven occasionally hangs out with—Buck, Jenny, and “Sour Cream.” Their physical appearances (and for the first two, personalities) resemble teenage human versions of Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl respectively.

Reception

The show’s become one of the more popular series on Cartoon Network, thanks to its writing quality. It’s also gotten attention for featuring a diverse cast of characters, as well as featuring women as main characters.

“Steven Universe” is also one of a very few children’s animated TV shows to acknowledge same-sex relationships. American TV animation in my opinion is still doing a lackluster job at portraying LGBT individuals. Adult animation still treats LGBT folks as either punchlines, closeted, or dated stereotypes. Kids’ series meanwhile treat LGBT individuals as personae non gratae (or only hinted at/directly announced once the series is over). However, things are finally moving forward, with a few children’s series starting to portray positive LGBT images, including same-sex couples.

In “Steven Universe”‘s case, the relationship in question is Garnet herself. One of the show’s running themes is the Gems’ “fusion” power, an ability of two Gems to physically join together and form a merged single individual with unique powerful abilities. In Garnet’s case, she’s actually a near-permanent fusion of two smaller, weaker Gems, Ruby and Sapphire. The two smaller gems are shown being extremely devoted to each other in their introductory episode, “Jail Break.” A later episode (“Love Letters”) has Steven openly mention Garnet’s relationship. This hasn’t gone unnoticed online, as comic creator Kate Leth discussed in a “Kate or Die” strip.

Opening credits

Finally, here’s the theme song for “Steven Universe,” which I previously listed in my “best superhero theme songs of the 2000s/2010s” post.

(Updated 11/25/16)

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