Steven Universe: Cartoon Network's Most Feminist TV Series

by Gabe Carey
Cartoon Network

Helmed by "Adventure Time" alum Rebecca Sugar, "Steven Universe" has been almost universally praised by critics and viewers alike as being a subversive and picturesque result of the third-wave feminist movement.

Opportunely, here we see a television series that's being watched and respected by a diverse assortment of mainstream audiences.

While there is a constant push for inclusion and diversity in "Steven Universe," it's often light and nuanced, at no point suffering from the criticism of being “preachy” as some feminist media tends to draw.

Instead, what's being touted is nothing short of yet another cute, subtle and witty action-comedy from Cartoon Network, which also brought us such timeless classics in animated programming as "The Powerpuff Girls" and "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends."

Unlike those series, however, "Steven Universe" maintains a rich history in being unabashedly progressive.

For instance, the series is the first since the network's establishment back in 1992 to feature a female creator, which has largely resulted in the decision of advertisers on the network to target the 6 to 11-year-old boy demographic.

Marketing decisions aside, "Steven Universe" never feels like the product of corporate oversight.

Rather, as viewers, we're invited to the fictitious world of Beach City which, like the real-world setting of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, from which the show draws inspiration, aspires to discard all culturally embedded notions of gender and sexuality.

It's fantasy for reasons other than focusing on three non-binary, albeit feminine, superheroes. "Steven Universe" takes place in a utopia where discrimination based on race, sexuality and gender identity simply doesn't exist.

In 2015, it's commonplace for TV shows to present a narrative commentary on frequently offensive tropes that more traditional examples of entertainment media tend to deliver.

Recently, Tina Fey's "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" employed a metaphorical approach, expressing disdain to patriarchal oppression in the form of an underground all-female cult led by a male reverend.

It doesn't take much critical thinking ability to surmise the figurative meaning concealed behind the droll premise of "Kimmy Schmidt," but "Steven Universe," on the other hand, is much smarter than it appears.

Behind layers of boisterous and sanguine amusement, there's a conscious effort being made to ensure effective representation of any and all human beings without the need for labels — a post-feminist world worth striving toward — even if it is a goal impossible to attain.

In episodes 48 and 49 of the series, entitled “The Return” and “Jail Break,” respectively, we're given one of the most pronounced LGBTQIA character representations the series (not to mention the entire network) has to offer.

The episode, which revolves around Garnet, one of the series' Crystal Gems (described by the "Steven Universe" Wiki as “an extra-terrestrial species of magical beings” who “seek to protect the Earth” from the rest of their kind who opt to invade it) comes out as a "fusion."

In "Steven Universe," a fusion is a single unified entity comprised of two separate Gems to form one.

In the case of Garnet, her character was the product of Ruby and Sapphire, an effeminately leaning couple implied to be involved in the program's first onscreen same-sex relationship, and it's marvelous!

The feat is accompanied by the captivating melodies of "Stronger Than You," an original music track written by Rebecca Sugar herself and performed by singer-songwriter Estelle, who provides the voice of Garnet.

Consequently, I can't get it out of my head, nor do I really want to. The meaning behind "Stronger Than You" is slightly ambiguous, but in the best possible way.

Turbulent lyrics like “The two of us ain't gonna follow your rules,” and “I can see you hate the way we intermingle, but I think you're just mad 'cause you're single” could, depending on interpretation, serve as both an anthem of homosexual liberation and, perhaps more fundamentally, a ballad of raw romantic infatuation.

Ultimately, is there really a difference?

Another example of "Steven Universe's" shameless insurgence takes place in episode 32, entitled “Fusion Cuisine.”

In this episode, Steven, a clumsy novice in the Crystal Gem department, attempts to win the hearts of the parents of his love interest, Connie, by forging a nuclear family.

You see, after his mother gave up her physical form to bring Steven into the world, he was left under the guidance of the Crystal Gems, essentially entrusting Steven under the supervision of three mothers: Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl.

In this episode, Steven is embarrassed about his unusual immediate family structure.

He hesitates to introduce Connie's, quite frankly, socially conservative parents to his more liberally constructed guardians.

He's embarrassed about his maternal kinship. The message being conveyed under multiple coatings of rich fantasy lore is heartbreaking once properly exposed.

Fortunately, after acquainting themselves with Steven's real guardians, Connie's parents see them for who they really are: mothers capable of love, affection and the occasional discipline, like in any other nuclear family.

It's an episode of respectful acceptance, and even if the intended audience isn't quite sophisticated enough to understand the importance of what's being communicated, it's subconsciously instilled in the brains of our youth to accept, welcome and embrace our differences!

Presumably, that's the component of the show that inspires such distinct excitement whenever I hear the words "Steven Universe" now.

Sure, the series can merely be a giddy and adorable cartoon at times, and the soundtrack is unspeakably impressive, but down to the core, this series represents something so much more substantial.

It's the constant exploration of themes like companionship, love, courage, tolerance of differences among peers and, perhaps most unusually, elements of femininity in even the male characters that keep the writing in "Steven Universe" both fresh and unconventional in each installment.

Better yet, no one in Beach City is scrutinized or perceived as inferior. Its residents just subsist together in harmony, exactly as they should.

In what's seen as a pipe dream to critics akin to my own tastes, Rebecca Sugar's efforts toward equal representation begin with her notable casting of often disenfranchised minorities, and they end with a lesbian kiss to the face of a network previously notorious for its restrictions on same-sex displays of affection.

Citations: praised by critics and viewers alike (IMDB), target the 6 to 11-year-old boy demographic (Feminist Ally Media), Rehoboth Beach (City of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware), that it draws inspiration from (The Washington Post), Steven Universe Wiki (Steven Universe Wiki), restrictions on same-sex displays of affection (E! Online)