I first found Cartoon Network’s “Steven Universe” through my love of animation. The show’s storyboard artist Ian Jones-Quartey did voice work for “Bravest Warriors” which was created by Pendleton Ward who made the other Cartoon Network hit “Adventure Time.” Both Jone-Quartey and Rebecca Sugar, creator of “Steven Universe,” also storyboarded episodes of “Adventure Time.” This whirlpool of talent storms up an all-ages show that’s a rare find.
The cartoon revolves around the protagonist Steven, his father Greg and his guardians the Crystal Gems. The Gems are aliens from another world who protect Earth from more sinister Gems. Steven himself is half-Gem as his mother Rose was the leader of the Crystal Gems. Rose appears only in flashbacks because she transformed into Steven to bring him into the world. Don’t think too hard on how that’s possible; it is a television show after all.
What should be analyzed is the show’s semi-autobiographical nature and valuable life lessons. The character Steven is loosely based on Sugar’s younger brother Steven while the Gems are based on aspects of her own personality. Just as she looked after Steven—and occasionally relaxed with video games and movies—so too do Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl.
While I was a fan from the first episode, it wasn’t until the season one finale “Jail Break” that the wonderful nature of “Steven Universe” sunk in. The episode reveals that Garnet is actually a fusion of two Gems: Ruby and Sapphire. Fusions are when two or more Gems combine for more strength and they rarely last longer than necessary. Think, “Power Rangers,” “Transformers,” or “Voltron.” Yet Ruby and Sapphire are together as Garnet all of the time because they literally can’t spend a moment apart.
When they rejoin in the episode, Garnet—voiced by R&B artist Estelle—sings a moving song about herself. My favorite verse from the song "Stronger Than You" is: “Go ahead and try to hit me if you’re able/Can’t you see that my relationship is stable/I can see you hate the way we intermingle/But I think you’re just mad ‘cause you’re single.”
Oh and did I mention that every Gem identifies as female? Yes, a main character in a kid’s television show is the embodiment of a loving lesbian relationship. When they’re separated again in a later episode they flirt so much they can’t even function to play a game of baseball. It’s beyond adorable.
Fusions also act as a metaphor for consent. When Garnet sees two Gems forced to fuse like lab experiments, she is horrified at the abomination. She knows firsthand how special and intimate fusion is and that it shouldn’t happen unwillingly.
Though Garnet’s relationship is perfect, that’s not the case with the rest of the Crystal Gems. Amethyst was in love with Greg but Greg loved Rose. Pearl loved Rose but Rose chose to be in a relationship with Greg. Pearl now will always be there for Steven since he is Rose but she’ll also be slightly mad at him. His presence is a constant reminder that the Rose she loved will never return.
The main theme of “Steven Universe” is making a name for oneself. Gems are constructed with a singular purpose and any deviation is seen as rebellion. Though Pearl of the Crystal Gems may be as intelligent as other Pearls, that doesn’t mean she’s comfortable being a servant like Pearls were designed to be.
Amethyst, grown on Earth but left underground 500 years too long, is insecure with her size and strength when compared to other gems of her class. She uses her shape-shifting abilities as a crutch to make her larger than she is. She also isn’t happy seeing Steven discover new powers and become a better fighter than her.
Steven struggles with his own identity, too. He has the same magical abilities as his mother and the same pink weapons, but he doesn’t have the exact same personality or memories. Each episode he tries to live up to her legacy and not disappoint the Gems. “Steven Universe” is at its best when he flaunts his feminine side and seals victories through empathy rather than violence.
The show has tackled mature topics such as abusive relationships, PTSD, when to say “No” to family and how to get over grudges just in the past month.
In last week’s 100th episode the newest character Bismuth, voiced by the extremely talented Uzo Aduba of “Orange is the New Black,” gave the Gems a chance to confront the age-old dilemma: Is it right to stoop to your enemy’s level to bring peace to the world?
The groundbreaking “Steven Universe” is unlike any other cartoon airing today. I hope the next 100 episodes are just as monumental as the first. The season three finale airs tonight, with season four promptly beginning tomorrow.
This column was originally published in the August 10, 2016 edition of the Valley Courier.