At the age of 26, Rebecca Sugar became the first solo female creator of a Cartoon Network program. Her show, “Steven Universe,” has just been renewed for a second season. I have seen every episode of “Steven Universe.” Tuning in is like eating good sushi — a simple combination of ingredients that leaves you feeling refreshed and satisfied (and sometimes a little emotional). The characters and scenery pigmented in dreamy pastels and the minimalist electronic music contribute to a warm, idyllic haze of wonder. These features would generally combine to form a warm and fuzzy show for tots but the writing subtly appeals to both adults and children without the use of a plethora of double-entendres.
The show centers on the Crystal Gems: Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl. They are the last remaining members of an elite force of women sworn to protect the planet. Chubby, innocent Steven is their newest member. The show is slow to reveal the intricate backstory of the universe in which it exists, but at some point we casually learn that Steven inherited his Gem powers from his mother, who sacrificed her immortality to give birth to her son. Each episode is centered around a day-to-day conflict that the Gems encounter. Yeah, they have hella cool powers like super strength, shapeshifting, magic weapons and the ability to merge their powers and personalities to temporarily create another person — but their problems are fairly relatable. Sometimes they battle a monster, sometimes Steven will discover a new power, but more often than not the ultra-powerful roomies will attempt to settle domestic disputes over breakfast or a movie.
“Steven Universe” recently returned after a 3 month hiatus with an episode entitled “Coach Steven,” guest featuring Nicki Minaj. Frankly, I was a little disappointed. The episode was dominated by a scene that is a combination of a workout montage and a ballad straight out of a musical theater production. With the amount of singing in the episode it was strange that the “Universe” team didn’t utilize Minaj’s vocal chops. It dawned on me that the show might be going in a different direction — one filled with fluff and singing, like the worst Muppet scenes (I love the Muppets but I have to leave the room during Miss Piggy’s vocal solos.) After I reflected on the episode for a little while I realized that it had all of the elements that make Steven Universe such a compelling cartoon.
The show focuses heavily on the emotional journeys the characters take during their missions rather than the thrills of action and adventure. Steven moves from childhood to adolescence under the guidance of his three mentors. While facing the challenges of learning about his powers and skills, he also learns to navigate the turbulent waters of interpersonal relationships. In the “Coach Steven” episode, Steven yearns to be strong in the “real way” like Sugilite (voiced by Minaj,) the tempestuous, ultra-strong woman that forms when Amethyst and Garnet combine powers. In favoring physical strength over mental, Steven favors his two other mentors over Pearl. He often receives contradictory advice from the Gems that he has to interpret and sometimes ignore. It makes sense that they tell him different things: they are all very different personalities.
Each Gem has a stone embedded somewhere on her body. While the locations of the gems reveal something about each character, Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl and Steven are not limited by the symbolism and personality tropes that initially define them. They develop as their vulnerabilities are exposed through their interactions with each other.
Pearl is graceful, tidy, and unabashedly neurotic. Out of all three characters, she is the most in danger of falling into a common negative role: that darned naggin’ lady. She nurtures without warmth, constantly worries about Steven’s health and safety and bombards him with a slew of lengthy lessons. Despite her clear over-protectiveness, Pearl is portrayed as a well meaning and useful figure in Steven’s life. At the end of the Coach Steven episode she is filled with doubt about her ability to protect her friends — she breaks down saying, “I’m not strong enough to do anything.” Steven grabs his megaphone and counters, “come on, you always know what to do! You’ve gotta show them what you showed me. That you’re strong. Strong in the real way!” Privileging kindness and thoughtfulness over physical strength, “Coach Steven” ends with a classic emotional resolution.
Amethyst’s gem is located in her heart. She is loud, fun and impulsive. As a magical entity, she doesn’t have to eat. But she does. Everything. Including a rotting burrito that makes her projectile vomit. She’s purple, curvy and she’s got an attitude, but her role isn’t limited to twerking and joking. Amethyst has a lot of pain! So much that, in one episode, it is revealed that she spends her nights in an amateur wrestling ring pummeling the laymen she is sworn to protect.
Garnet has a red stone in the palm of her hand. She is a woman of action: silent, stoic and wise when she does speak. But even Garnet is more than just a powerful leader, she too can make mistakes and get funky on the dance floor. When Steven becomes unconscious in one episode, she begins to shake his delicate frame. As the other Gems stop her, Garnet’s voice quivers as she says “I thought violence would be the answer.” She is far from all-knowing and all-powerful. Like her peers, sometimes Garnet needs a shoulder to lean on.
Finally, Steven’s gem is located on his belly. He enjoys french fries and donuts and ice-cream sandwiches shaped like cats. He even has a backpack shaped like a cheeseburger. But Steven is not your typical dumb-fat-kid archetype. He is incredibly emotionally aware, looks up to the Gems, and cares for them deeply. In “So Many Birthdays” Steven learns that the Gems are thousands of years old but have never celebrated a birthday. He plans a party for each of them and when they don’t respond positively, he becomes aware of his own mortality (I’ve already spoiled one episode, I won’t spoil another!) Steven is loving and kind above all else, and it is fun to watch him grow up. For me, enjoying “Steven Universe” doesn’t feel like watching a kid’s cartoon. It feels like a 10 minute hug from a dear friend when you’re feeling down in the dumps.