Here comes a thought, queerness and Steven Universe. This gem of a cartoon presents gender dysphoria, the self, sexuality, feminism and other social issues cartoons would never have dreamt of touching.
Source: Steven Universe Fandom
It is a cartoon about a half-human, half-Gem boy named Steven Universe, who lives with the Crystal Gems. Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz was a Gem and the leader of the Crystal Gems, but she sacrificed her physical form to give birth to Steven, while his human father, Greg Universe lives nearby and plays an active part in Steven’s life. Not all gems are friendly like the Crystal Gems, who have sworn to protect Earth and have done so for the past 4 thousand years, fighting a long and hard war against the Gem Home World.
To summarise what you’ll expect from the series, the show started out as a slice-of-life type cartoon that centered on the daily antics of a lovable human boy, with heavy elements of science fiction and fantasy. In the span of just 5 seasons, it has evolved into a nuanced critique of gender constructs with a fantastical cosmos-old war looming in the background, an epic that pits Steven against the Gem Homeworld.
Gender and Queerness
What is gender? Gender is a socially constructed definition of what it is to be a man or a woman. How we speak, dress and act are just constructs that have been moulded and passed down through generations and generations of human history. It is not the same as sex which is the biological characteristics of man and women, which is defined by what genitals they have (a man has a ding-dong, a woman has a hu-ha).
In recent times, the LGBT community have argued for a paradigm shift, away from the traditional view that gender is binary (limited to male and female). Rather, sexuality is a spectrum as the Columbia Political Review shows below, no person ever is fully at the end of any spectrum, it is always a mixture (or a ‘fusion’ as Steven Universe puts it)to a certain extent. Queerness has many different facets, it can be interpreted as the partial way of giving space for the exploration of self, gender and sexuality.
You can be different mixtures of both or just one, or whatever, it doesn’t matter, you do you. The moral philosophy of Steven Universe is: be wary of judging others when their stories are complicated and intense, something most of us have no experience with. As our protagonist accepts and embraces the loves and lives of his loved ones, we too learn how to approach the sensitive issue of gender and queerness.
Source: The Trevor Project
One can view Steven Universe as a progression of diversity and representation of characters that are queer. Definitely, Steven Universe is portraying gender in a subversive fashion as I hope to show.
Source: Steven Universe Wikia
For example, an overtly romantic relationship between two characters who can be identified as female to a certain extent by the audience and an androgynous character that is a fusion of two characters that are male and female respectively and the concept of Gems itself which are genderless.
Here we have Steven the protagonist, who unlike most male protagonists, he is shown to wear pink, and nobody in the show ever questions that is’s a feminine colour, and even Steven’s effeminate qualities are what make him so well-loved. His pacifist style of defeating villains – done through capturing their gems in ‘bubbles’ and storing them away instead of killing – is the embodiment of the loving and understanding soul he is that ultimately shows, he is wise beyond his years. He cries when he’s emotional and through his actions and comforts other emotional characters by telling them “It’s okay to cry”. His character is a fine exhibit of what we consider traditional female characteristics with a mixture of boyish charms. Arguably, Steven is the ideal we live up to if the world was rid of toxic masculinity. He is extremely empathetic, even to his enemies, and accepts everyone as who they are.
The show makes clear that Steven’s primary weapon is a shield is a peculiar choice, as it is usually a defensive object rather than an offensive weapon like swords and spears. Oddly enough, it is the Crystal Gems who are “female” who prefer offensive weapons, e.g., gauntlets, spears and whips.
The show erases the dichotomies of gender roles and expectations, and quite often subverts them. It destroys clichés like “a little boy needs a man in his life, so that he can grow up to be manly”, by having the Crystal Gems be Steven’s primary caretakers. Gender is treated as a non-issue, something that people have a right to adjust to their own comforts and sensibilities. Steven’s gender does not dictate his behaviour as an individual or govern social dynamics between himself and other characters. It presents us a beautiful reality where it is only the personalities of each character that is their sole defining trait, and in a world that is obsessed with acting according to your gender, the show is a comfort for those who feel trapped in their own sexual stereotypes and roles.
Fusion and Queer Love
The above image shows one of the shows most beloved characters, Garnet. She is a fusion between Sapphire and Ruby. Garnet is a symbol of the eternal love between Ruby and Garnet. Garnet stays a fusion for long period in the show because Ruby and Sapphire love each other so much, they could not bear to separate ever. The only times they do split up is a consequence of hatred and conflict caused by others. They are considered the first fusion of gems ever in the universe of the show, and it was all an accident. Ruby and Sapphire are from different classes of gems, however right from the get go, they felt something with each other, and that was the catalyst for the fusion when they come in contact for the first time. Unfortunately, it was also observed by Homeworld Gems. They come from a world where fusion was taboo, other gems looked down upon them (an allegory for the harsh treatment our friends in the LGBT community face) those who fuse faced hardship and prejudice from almost every facet of life. Thus, Ruby and Sapphire runaway to Earth a few thousand years before to escape from any punishment from the Homeworld. Then they met the Crystal Gems who were very accepting of them, took them in as if they were their own. There is even a song dedicated to them being gem lesbians (if you see them as girls of course), Something Entirely New and another song about their love, Stronger Than You (I love both of these songs!)
Now let’s talk about, the reaction of the other characters about finding out she is a fusion. Only the Homeworld Gems that are bound in tradition and things belonging “in a certain way”, find fusion utterly disguting. In contrast, it took Steven at least 10 years to find out that Garnet was a fusion, and he was mesmerized and vocal in support about it.
Fusion is an intimate process among the characters, in which both must be emotionally in sync to be able to fuse, if not, it will be unstable and hazardous. It is basically like any relationship, isn’t it? If love and trust is what keeps a relationship strong and stable, fusion as a concept provides children and adults alike an outlook on how a loving relationship would look like for even the strangest of characters.
Stevonnie: Of First Times and Anxiety
Who is Stevonnie? Stevonnie is the fusion between the half-gem hybrid Steven and his best friend, a human girl, Connie. How do you even refer to Stevonnie? It is not a she or he. Stevonnie is popularly referred to as them or they, an allegory for people who identify as non-binary.
What do they represent? The show, through the voice of Garnet’s mothering nature, encourages us to think of Stevonnie as an experience. They are used as metaphor that so complex and specific to gender dysphoria, but at the same time relatable in the form of a fictional character. Stevonnie challenges the set of practices assigned to us based on the genitals we are born with, a role model for many young ones confused between their biological sex and their gender. Some viewers identifies Stevonnie as an allegory for transgenderism or transsexualism and what it feels to be alienated by others. Perhaps the most comforting part about it is, there is something in Stevonnie or all the show’s characters, that the queer community can identify with and learn something from.
The character of Stevonnie also represents all first times in any relationship, and what it felt like when puberty comes hitting you like a truck, a disorienting feeling when you suddenly find yourself in the body of an adult. Stevonnie’s experience was just like how we felt when we entered high school and university. How we are suddenly self-conscious of our actions and looks. How we are objectified by others. How suddenly we have power over others. How it is so confusing and overwhelming.
And while we could go on to how Steven Universe addresses mental health (anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder), it would be another full-length piece completely. For the time being, Stevonnie’s complex feelings about being a real and powerful person on their own fills her with anxiety and in this, learns through song how to deal with this personal crisis, one thought at a time.
As a modern cartoon, Steven Universe shines brightly and challenges the dominant ideologies regarding gender construction while reserving their preachiness about it. It defies traditional gender roles and offers different views and expressions of gender identity. I could go on and on about Steven Universe, but honestly, just watch the show. It teaches so much, and I feel this is magnificent piece of animation for children to learn that ‘Hey, it’s okay, there is nothing wrong with you the way you are’; no child or person in general should feel like they do not belong or shouldn’t exist because of how they express themselves in different ways that the majority thinks deviant. In teaching acceptance and providing a safe space, for even half an hour a day, where the queer folks of the world can see themselves on screen, this is where Steven Universe truly shines.
Written by Tyler Lai