by Rachel Busnardo
I just can’t stop talking about Steven Universe, Cartoon Network’s first show created solely by a woman, Rebecca Sugar.
Cartoon Network launched on October 1, 1992; Rebecca Sugar is the first female to create a show. Let that sink in for a second.
First, let me tell you I’m a woman in my 30s and I love this cartoon. I loved it before I ever knew a woman created it, and loved it even more after. And, yes, it’s made for children—but the older I get, the more I realize that the loving/wounded child in me needs nurturing too. That girl will always have more room in her heart for narratives featuring a gender buffet of badass female-presenting superheroes voiced by an ensemble of diverse, talented women.
I will not apologize for loving this child’s cartoon. Nope.
BUT WHAT’S IT ABOUT? (Spoilers Ahead)
SU is a show about a little boy and his three, non-human, female-presenting caretakers: Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, known as the Crystal Gems (Gems are ungendered, but use “she” as their pronoun). Steven himself is half Crystal Gem. His mother, Rose Quartz, was the leader of the Gem rebellion on Earth that occurred thousands of years prior to Steven’s birth.
Gems don’t have children. They grow more gemstones as needed, so when Rose Quartz fell in love with a human, Greg Universe, and became pregnant with Steven, she gave up her form to give Steven life. In this sense, Steven is a physical piece of his own mother, not just a copy of her genetic code, the rose quartz stone in his belly is the same stone that was once his mother. He’s the first of his kind, a half-human, half-gem hybrid.
If it sounds complicated, it’s because it is. Whether human or alien, all the characters in SU are highly complex and their gender-fluidity is a major contributor to that complexity.
To reiterate, the Gems have no gender, but all the Gems we’ve seen in the show so far are female-presenting. They choose their forms. When they’re wounded in battle, they revert back to Gem state to regenerate, and sometimes reinvent, their forms. The character that takes the most liberty with her form (and gender presentation) is probably Amethyst—one of my favorite characters (though they’re all my favorites really).
All Gems possess the ability to shape shift, but refrain because it consumes a ton of energy. Amethyst doesn’t seem to care about wasted energy though. She shape shifts often simply because she enjoys taking on weird, oftentimes unsettling, forms. Sometimes these forms are comic relief, sometimes they’re functional, and sometimes they’re just down right cruel.
This is perhaps the only time in the show thus far when a Gem takes on a masculine form of their own design for an extended period of time. The audience at the wrestling match doesn’t know Purple Puma’s real identity. We see Amethyst with hair under her arms, an exposed chest, and muscular upper body. She could choose to appear in a masculine form all the time if she wanted, but she doesn’t. It’s also interesting that she takes a male form as a way of establishing dominance, in the ring, no one can tell me what to do, which is perhaps proof that the Gems have an understanding of human gender norms, but actively disregard them in their own lives. Gender norms are a part of human society they choose not to adopt. If the audience was comprised of Gems, I doubt Amethyst would have appeared in a masculine form. Amethyst’s behaviors often dabble in what is stereotypically considered masculine (at least in popular narratives), while retaining her female form. She eats gross food, belches, and periodically mocks Steven, which are all traits that oppose what it means to be “ladylike” or motherly.
Actually, she seems to have some kind of fascination with masculine features. When we see her as a young Gem, her hair is cropped short but upon meeting Greg Universe for the first time, Amethyst is excited by his long, unruly locks, which she later mimics herself. When we meet Amethyst, she has the same hairstyle as Steven’s father.
Since I’m overlaying human constructs onto nonhuman behavior, I should add that this mimicking never feels like a subversion of female oppression by making a female-presenting character more masculine (just be more like a dude, right?), rather it highlights and encourages Amethyst’s curiosity in exploring herself because, in this world, exploring yourself is encouraged. Steven and the Crystal Gems love Amethyst as is—which includes all her crazy choices.
What’s most refreshing about her character isn’t that she has flaws, but that these flaws don’t function as a plot device. She’s still a hero; she’s still a part of the solution to the Crystal Gem’s problems, not a repeated plot turn (like, oh gosh, what stupid thing did Amethyst do this time?) in the way flawed characters commonly function.
There are other complicated forms the Gems can take as well. What the Gems call “fusion” is a central component to the story. Fusion is when two Gems literally fuse their bodies together creating one larger Gem. On the Gem Homeworld, fusion is looked down upon as something performed by weaker Gems. Fused Gems are considered abominations if it’s for any reason other than battle. So what happens when two Gems fuse permanently?
This is where we arrive at Garnet, voiced by R&B singer Estelle. Garnet is a badass. She’s wise and often functions as the group’s leader, but I get the feeling that this leadership happened organically. Garnet doesn’t assert her power—not in a traditional, tyrannical sense—she simply casts an air of authority around her that causes others to abide willingly. The Crystal Gems trust her because they recognize her power as a permanent fusion between two Gems: Sapphire and Ruby.
There are differences between patriarchal and matriarchal power structures beyond “male-led” and “female-led.” Matriarchal rule entails teamwork and shared ruling in an effort to better the community. In this sense, Garnet is a physical embodiment of the matriarchy. She is the matriarchy. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that this is the dominant source of Garnet’s strength and why the other Crystal Gems trust her judgment the way they do. In order to maintain Garnet’s form, Ruby and Sapphire have to lose their individual selves to become something better. Garnet is the best of both of them. Not one flawed being, but the combination of their two attributes. Ruby and Sapphire work together to form something greater, something more powerful than their bodies alone.
On the Homeworld, Garnet is considered an abomination—a threat—yet, in Garnet’s words, she represents the love of Ruby and Sapphire. She is Ruby and Sapphire’s love in physical form (omg she’s love, but also the matriarchy. I’ll let you synthesize the connection). They love each other so much, they couldn’t stand to be apart, and they manage their form together, in a sense.
Gems can’t fuse with humans, which didn’t stop Rose Quartz and Greg Universe from trying (since Rose Quartz ultimately becomes pregnant with Steven, we can assume they fused the human way *wink*). Steven, however, being half Gem and half human, does have the ability to fuse with humans. At one point, he accidentally fuses with his best friend (and love interest), Connie, to form the being Stevonnie.
In the history of television, I’ve never seen anything like Stevonnie. Upon showing herself to the Crystal Gems, it’s immediately apparent by Garnet’s face that not only is she thrilled for Steven, she’s proud. She tells Stevonnie she’s not one person, or two people, but an experience. Together Steven and Connie become one, incredibly attractive, woman. They go to a club together and take center stage—and at no time is Steven’s gender called into question. Not once is there any hint that a little boy becoming a woman is anything short of an experience to be celebrated. Stevonnie enjoys her day. She gets a donut. She dances. She just is.
That’s really all there is to say about her. You just have to experience her. As a viewer, you get to participate in a little boy’s experience of womanhood and what’s more awesome than that?
I’ve talked a lot about the Crystal Gems, and their gender fluidity, but what about the human characters? They’re no exception. Perhaps my favorite human character is Sadie, who works at the Big Donut, a place Steven frequents often (his sugar intake is never called into question, which I love—eat Steven, eat, be healthy, but eat!). In the episode “Island Adventure,” Sadie turns into the stranded-island-woman-warrior we’ve all been craving.
One of the most infuriating aspects of deserted island narratives involving women is how they magically never seem to grow hair (I’m looking at you Lost). Have all these women undergone full body electrolysis in the event they may be stranded without a razor? Are we so fragile we can’t stomach something as simple as hair? Sadie (above) is depicted with that shameful stubble, wielding a fish-killing stick. Steven, Sadie, and Lars (who also works at the Big Donut) use the Gem warp pad to visit a little deserted island for the day, when they become stranded there for who knows how long. Obviously a couple of days based on the stubble, unless of course Sadie never shaves which would be even better. While they’re there, they get ambushed by an invisible monster. Steven doesn’t quite have a hold of his powers yet, and Lars is basically useless, so enter Sadie who takes on the role of heroine naturally and with great ease.
But Sadie’s character doesn’t end there. In a much later episode, we find out Sadie likes to sing. Steven enters her into the Beach City Talent Show where Steven and Sadie’s mother go a little overboard trying to fit Sadie into a totally female role. Seeing her in a dress and makeup looks traumatic. For me, it recalled memories of staring at a pretty dress spread out on my bed and crying for hours at the thought of having to wear it to my cousin’s wedding when I was six years old. This episode deals directly with the complexities of gender presentation. Up until now, all the characters have chosen their respective gender presentations and those presentations have been celebrated. This is the point at which two characters forget to let Sadie choose for herself and, instead, assume they know how she wants to be presented.
For me this episode was particularly painful to watch, even though, by this point in the show, I had all the faith in the world Rebecca Sugar and her writing staff would give us a happy ending with an important moral. An angry voice in me started sounding, LEAVE HER ALONE.
Of course, here, there was a happy ending as Steven takes the dress, takes the makeup, takes the glitter, and goes out in Sadie’s place because it was he who really wanted to be on stage in the first place. This is an ultimate lesson in friendship and what happens when we forget to pay attention to how we treat one another. Respecting those around us means treating others how they want to be treated.
Lars is the only character on the show, from what I can tell, that is completely cliché. He’s a whiny guy who will stop at nothing to be one of the cool kids. You know the type. He’ll hurt anyone, even his longtime friends, Steven and Sadie (Sadie is also hopelessly in love with him, which he realizes, but rejects based on her not-cool-kid social standing). Hands down he’s the most insufferable character. It took me a while to even understand what his purpose is on the show, but I’ve come to two conclusions: 1.) If we are to reimagine better worlds, we cannot exclude the pieces of misunderstood shit that walk this earth. This is the difference between theory and praxis. Children, and adults alike, perhaps need to understand that there will always be mean people in the world—but 2.) You can choose how you treat those people. In SU, Lars is loved. The characters are not ignorant to how heinous he is, but they choose to love him anyway. Maybe we’ll see him change in the future and maybe we won’t, but to practice love, I suppose one must let their love be boundless. A lesson we could all learn—even though sometimes it feels impossible.
There’s so much more I could say about the characters on this show. The newest Gem, Peridot, for example is cold, callous, and an all-around super-nerd, but longs to be loved just like anyone else. Lapis Lazuli, a Gem who’s been tormented and used her entire life, but believes in Steven’s goodness against all odds—and no matter what mistakes she makes, Steven loves her the same. There’s the oddness of Onion, an unsettling little boy who looks like an onion. Enough said. Greg Universe, Steven’s father who lives in a van. He’s a failed musician, who in any other context would be portrayed as a deadbeat, but whose unwavering love for his son centers him as a hero and all around best dad ever. I dare you not to fall in love with Greg Universe.
I’ve given away some of the plot, but by no means have I given away the experience of watching this show. Nothing has made my cry with joy this much since Mad Max: Fury Road (seriously the second I saw Charlize, I was crying tears of pure, liquid joy). The episodes are only ten minutes, you can get three in on a lunch break—or six if you have one of those long, fancy corporate lunch breaks.
Why not give yourself a little love?
Rachel Busnardo received her MFA in creative writing (emphasis in poetry) from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her work has appeared in decomP, The San Diego Poetry Annual, MadHat Lit, Dreginald, El Aleph Press, & Bone Bouquet to name a few. She’s a 2011 Pushcart nominee, writer, gamer, lover of geology & a giant feminist. She currently lives with her partner in Boulder, CO. Sometimes she tweets on twitter @oppenblade.