11 Apr What Steven Universe can Teach us about Queerness, Gender Identity, and Feminism
By: Patricia Martin
Steven Universe has changed my life. OK, maybe that is a bit dramatic, but I’m confident in saying that if I had this show growing up, it definitely would have. Yes, it’s a cartoon created for kids, but it has a lot more heart than a lot of children’s shows, all while keeping it interesting and exciting. If you haven’t seen it, in a nutshell, Steven Universe is about a boy named Steven who is being raised by his mother’s best friends, and defenders of the earth, the Crystal Gems (CG’s), Pearl, Amethyst, and Garnet. Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, was a Crystal Gem too but she had to give up her human form so that Steven could come into existence. Steven’s human father, Greg, is also a big part of his life although he doesn’t live with him. Steven has a best friend named Connie and a neighborhood full of interesting characters. Every episode, Steven, and the Crystal Gems have adventures in their town, Beach City, in the universe, and beyond.
Within this super unique premise, Steven Universe deals with many important concepts, but in a way that children can understand and people of all ages can relate to. Most importantly, the show is not preachy and is sometimes very subtle in their delivery of these truth gems – no pun intended. The things that I enjoy about the show is its portrayal of queer relationships and characters, its interpretation of gender, and its feminist conceptualization.
Although the Crystal Gems (and the other gem characters) are technically sexless, they go by the pronouns “she/her.” All the gems have varying degrees of feminine and masculine characteristics and appearances. This is never something that is pointed out; it is something that just is.
Pearl, Amethyst, Garnet, and Rose Quartz all present as female. Pearl is tall and thin with the dainty, precise mannerisms of a dancer. She has a pixie haircut and wears a peplum top with a sash and leggings. Pearl has an A-type personality and takes a no-nonsense approach when dealing with situations from going on missions with the other Crystal Gems to guiding Steven as he comes of age.
Amethyst is very short in stature compared to the other Gems and has a curvy body-type. She is precocious, loves making jokes, and doing her own thing, despite the other Crystal Gems giving her antics the side eye on occasion. She is sometimes insecure because of her past but has an endearing personality. Because of her impulsive and carefree nature, Amethyst often comes across as a little sister to Pearl and Garnet and a big sister to Steven, who she sometimes teases but always protects.
Last, but certainly not least, is Garnet, my favorite and the current leader of the Crystal Gems. She is voiced by the singer, Estelle, is very tall, has what appears to be a poppin’ afro, and hips for days. Garnet can be quiet and stoic but is fiercely protective of the ones she cares about. Despite her somewhat hard exterior, she is the most affectionate and loving towards Steven out of all the Crystal Gems. She is also intuitive and can warn the others of dangers ahead.
Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, who appears many times in flashbacks, is arguably the most feminine presenting character. She was also the leader of the Crystal Gems, as she was the one who began the rebellion that brought them to Earth. She was very large in width and height, and she had huge pink ringlet curls that framed her face, glossy lips, and a big pink ball gown.
There are also masculine presenting Gems in Steven Universe. Two of the standouts are Jasper and Bismuth. Jasper, a sadistic gem that the CG’s had to protect the earth from, is authoritative, has a gruff-sounding voice, a muscular build, and a long mane of hair. Bismuth, voiced by Uzo Aduba, is one of the original CG’s and has large, bulging muscles, broad shoulders, and rainbow-colored dreadlocks. She is strong, fierce, passionate, and emotive.
There is also a non-binary character named Stevonnie, who goes by the pronouns “they/them.” So who is Stevonnie? To answer this, I will have to reveal some spoilers. Gems can perform an act called fusion, where two or more of their forms fuse into one bigger, stronger form with a combination of abilities and personalities. Most of the time, the method used to accomplish this is a dance or interaction with intent to fuse with someone you trust. But sometimes fusion can happen through coercion or even by accident, which is the case with Stevonnie.
One day, Steven and Connie were playing and dancing, and to their surprise, they fused into a tall, androgynous teenager named Stevonnie. Stevonnie has much of Stevens facial features, an outfit similar to Steven’s, Connie’s build, and Connie’s long wavy hair. They have a combination of Connie and Steven’s personalities and the strength of character and bravery of both of the children. Stevonnie draws attention from both male and female characters and is still figuring out their form and what it means to have this shape and interact with others, the same way many teenagers are.
In these ways, gender is treated with respect and dignity in Steven Universe. The acknowledgment of gender is of particular importance because since the gems identify as female when they are in romantic relationships, queer relationships are illustrated. Again, this is not something that is ever overstated or even addressed, it just is. Beware of more spoilers ahead.
As you go through the series, you discover that Pearl had a complicated past with Rose Quartz. Not only was Pearl the trusted protector and comrade of Rose Quartz, but she was also in love with her. It isn’t clear yet whether Rose knew how Pearl felt or even reciprocated the feeling but she did consider Pearl, her dearest friend. When Rose met Steven’s father, Pearl was very threatened and jealous. She harbored her feelings inside so that she could continue to be Rose’s friend and then later help raise Steven. There was even an episode where Pearl and Greg made amends for the sake of their love for Steven. Later in the series, after Pearl has resolved to move on, she meets a Mystery Girl who is a buff, biker chick with long pink, curly hair and remarkably resembles Rose. At first, Pearl is too scared to talk to her but after Steven and Amethyst encourage her, she does, and without even realizing it, she gets her number.
The other queer relationship shown in Steven Universe is one that gives me all the feels. It is between the two gems whose fusion creates Garnet, Ruby, and Sapphire. The first time we learn of this fusion is in the episode, “Jail Break.” After briefly explaining to Steven that she is a fusion, Garnet fights Jasper and sings a song called, “Stronger than You,” in which she says that even though her fusion makes Jasper uncomfortable and confused, the love that bonds her together makes her stronger than Jasper. Sapphire and Ruby’s fusion was seen as taboo when they first fused thousands of years prior, yet they chose to continue to exist as a fusion. Normally, fusions are temporary, but the reason Sapphire and Ruby decided to remain fused as Garnet is that they fell in love and knew they were better together than apart. Apart, Ruby can be playful but is foremost a determined and skilled fighter. Yet, she is also hot-tempered and impulsive. Sapphire is quiet and gentle, with the power of future-vision that is so clear it sometimes robs her of the ability to live in the moment. But together, they make Garnet who she is, tenacious and perceptive, as well as the beautiful representation of a positive, stable, queer relationship.
Not only are the characters in Steven Universe free to be who they are, but there are also no boundaries when it comes to what it means to be an individual, whether the boy, girl or gem. All the Crystal Gems, feminine or masculine presenting, fight and kick ass when they do. They take on the daunting task of protecting the earth from menaces that often come from their home planet and the universe using their various weapons and powers. At the same time, they love Steven and protect him with all of their beings as well as nurture him and teach him how to be the best Crystal Gem he can be. These are not traditional, one-dimensional female characters; they are relatable to the multilayered women who exist in real life.
Male and human characters get a non-traditional treatment on Steven Universe too. Steven is a pre-teen boy who is sensitive and compassionate, but this is never used to make him seem weak. He fights alongside the rest of the CG’s and uses his strength and intelligence to get them out of some seemingly impossible situations. Connie, Steven’s best friend, is strong, smart, and opinionated. She can be sensitive and has the uncertainties many pre-teen kids have. Connie is often seen rescuing Steven from any number of perils and is even trained to fight in the battle to protect him. Together they use the weapons that Steven inherited from his mother; Connie spars with the sword and Steven fights with the shield.
Even Steven’s father Greg displays emotional intelligence, despite the fact that he is not very knowledgeable about what he calls the Gems’ “magic stuff” and has been known not to be the best role model when it comes to decision-making. Nevertheless, he loved Rose with all of his heart and loves his son enough to let him pursue his destiny as a Crystal Gem, even though the danger it puts him in stresses Greg out to no end. After Rose’s departure, we see Greg naturally and lovingly caring for baby Steven as a single father and has to teach the CG’s how to take care of Steven because they simply don’t know how to.
Finally, I think that Rose Quartz’s character is the epitome of what this show is about. Despite her very feminine and soft appearance, she was known to all the gems as the strongest fighter and the leader of the rebellion. While on Earth, her interactions with humans proved her to be a bit aloof, and she was unaccustomed to emotional intimacy. She didn’t understand the concept of love beyond a feeling of mutual respect and a desire to protect. It took Greg explaining these things to her to make her understand them, and they eventually fell in love. Greg brought her to a place of appreciation for what love is to the point that she wanted to give up her human form in the ultimate sacrifice and act of love for her son, Steven. Normally, especially in children’s shows, it is the very feminine character who is always swooning and searching for love, and when she finds it she has to soften the heart of her more masculine love interest. But this is not the case in Steven Universe, where this trope is turned completely on its head.
Rose may have been initially unable to love like Greg, but she was not cold-hearted. She had a passion for justice and an unyielding feeling of empathy for Earth and its dwellers. In fact, she started the rebellion after falling in love with the beauty of the Earth and being fascinated by humans’ ability to grow, change, and be who they wanted to be instead of being defined by their forms or the labels put on them by society like gems are forced to do. This freedom and autonomy are why she wanted to have Steven and let him grow up in a world where he could be himself, someone, which he chose to be.
When I watch Steven Universe, I get fuzzy feelings as I see the depiction of many non-traditional interactions, relationships, and expressions of identity. It amazes me how a show like this is more reflective of the world today, yet it is rare to see such representations on TV, especially in a show made for children. This normalization of same sex (or gender) relationships, non-nuclear families, characters who are not constricted by gender norms, and characters who are allowed just to give me hope that our future will be a little brighter since children are now being exposed to these values.
Steven Universe, and shows like it, are so important for children who are growing up in a society that tells them who they should be, without taking into account who they are. It is essential for kids to understand that there’s not just one way to be a girl or to be a boy or to be feminine or masculine. As an adult who identifies as queer, it reminds me that I’m not alone and that everything is going to be OK. We must all understand that each person is different and it’s not about being pinpointed as “normal” or “other.” We are individuals, no matter what category we choose to fall under (or not to fall under) and it’s refreshing to see this positive treatment of identity displayed on TV.
Patricia Martin is a blogger and a freelance writer who has also had careers in law and psychology. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and bases much of her writing on what is going on in society today, a little bit of pop culture, and things she has learned throughout life. She considers herself a Black Girl Nerd because she loves listening to podcasts, reading all kinds of books, and superhero backstories give her goosebumps. As a first-generation American QWOC, resistance is very important to her. She uses creative expression and advocacy to help her to focus on this goal. Check out her blog, The Glam Femme*inist, at www.theglamfemme.com, Twitter and Instagram: @theglamfemme