“Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell……children will listen.”
I have mixed feelings on the Broadway musical Into the Woods. While those opinions are better off saved for another day and another review, one thing is certain: that final, echoing line composed by Stephen Sondheim resonated with me from the moment I heard it, and to this day it remains one of my favorite messages from any fictional work. Storytelling in any form is, quite effectively, a kind of magic. It’s a spell. From nothing, you are shaping and bringing into existence a creation that can potentially influence generations of audiences. When you tell a story, you are creating something with impact. From the most revered of classic literature to the most obscure independent film, each shares a story that someone somewhere will carry with them in their hearts, their subconscious and their actions for quite possibly the rest of their lives. It’s never just a book, just a movie, just a play, just a show. These things have power, and that power can be easily misjudged.
Since its pilot debut in July 2013, Cartoon Network’s animated series Steven Universe has gained an increasing amount of publicity, becoming a cornerstone of the network’s weekly schedule and receiving acknowledgement from multiple industry awards and media coverage such as Time’s Entertainment Weekly. Since its launch, SU has inspired a comic book series, an RPG, and coming this fall: Steven Universe’s Guide to the Crystal Gems—a handbook featuring original art, character profiles and an introduction by SU’s creator: Rebecca Sugar. With the show’s sophisticated writing, quality animation, progressive themes and a cast straight from the stages of Broadway, it’s easy to fall into the old and tired trap of: “This is a children’s show? This is way too good—too complex, too dark, too thoughtful—to be something that’s meant for kids!”
And that’s where I’m going to stop you.
There is a common and dangerous misconception in regards to children’s programming, one that spans not only across television but throughout the field of animation in general. This is the idea that quality, depth, and children’s entertainment are all mutually exclusive concepts. Animation as a whole is often stereotyped as something shallow and humorous, existing solely for entertainment value and to serve as a makeshift babysitter. It’s important, however, not to forget that children also experience negativity. They struggle with sadness, uncertainty, jealousy, identity, family and even death just as adults do. What children often lack is life experience: guidance from a trusted, friendly source that can help them see their world and their problems in a way they can comprehend and cope with. That’s where children’s entertainment can become a vital tool, and it’s where Steven Universe excels.
The series revolves around the Crystal Gems: refugees of an alien race born from gemstones, and their quest to raise their deceased leader’s half-human son in the small East-coastal town of Beach City. The story is a coming-of-age tale for Steven, who must learn to master his powers while coping with his half-gem/half-human identity, alongside the repercussions of his family’s treason against their Homeworld and the shortage of his favorite ice cream treat: Cookie Cats. The story goes on to unfold, over a platform of 62 episodes and counting, and my goal here is to keep that plot as unspoiled for new viewers as possible. Even the smallest, most poignant moments of the series are worth experiencing firsthand, and the series has plenty of them. What I can do is outline just a few of the general themes that make Steven Universe such a worthwhile and truly groundbreaking series. Gems, if you will, that turn the show into something generations of kids can and will hopefully enjoy.
This is a huge theme throughout the show, and the variety of family types span beyond just Steven being raised by his three “space moms”. Steven’s father, Greg, also maintains a strong presence in Steven’s life. While it’s shown that Greg works at a car wash and lives out of an old van, he is never portrayed as a typical “deadbeat dad”—a stereotype writers could have easily fallen into. Rather, Greg is simply a very loving father living in an increasingly relatable situation. Despite his open bewilderment and wariness of the Gems and their ways of life, he loves and supports Steven unconditionally, doing his best to relate to him and guide him. Parents are shown in a variety of lights as the home life of other characters are revealed throughout the show. Some are strict, some families are very large, some seem either estranged or are revealed to be largely absent from their children’s’ lives altogether. The series addresses a wide range of these situations for children in the real world to relate to, perhaps helping them learn with ways to cope with and understand their own personal situations.
Anyone familiar with Steven Universe probably smiles at the word “love”, (maybe you start to hum a little tune in your head). If there’s one thing the show does exceptionally well above all else, it’s representing and broadening the concept of what it means to truly love someone. As Garnet aptly states: “Love takes time, and love takes work.” Love is shown as something joyful, comforting and desirable, but also as a struggle—something that is capable of causing jealousy, pain and emotional turmoil. Love is shown as something that can be romantic, platonic, or a co-existence of both. For instance, it’s made obvious that Steven and Connie have a mutual, childish crush on one another, but that crush does not overshadow or interfere with their strong bond as dear friends. In a second season episode, Garnet teaches Jaimie that “love at first site” is an idealized concept which rarely works—for love to be successful, you must put in time and the effort to get to know someone, to come to terms with their strengths and their vices alike. The series shows the dangers of one-sided love, of putting loved ones up on a pedestal at the cost of your own self-worth. It provides cautionary tales towards sacrificing your own wellbeing for someone else—teaching when that may be the right thing to do, and when it goes too far. For children dealing with newfound affection and emotions, with little experience to guide them, seeing these problems represented in characters they can easily relate to is monumental in aiding their ability to understand and interact with the people in their own lives.
Death and Loss
Death is a concept woven into the premise of Steven Universe almost from Day 1—not in an overwhelming sense, but as an established part of the main characters’ lives which they are forced to deal with regularly. The Gems themselves are revealed to have watched thousands of their own kind die in the days of the rebellion. Rose Quartz, who was an elder figure to the Gems and a wife to Greg, died in order to give birth to Steven. The concept of loss is not glossed over–the writing is honest. Any child dealing with a loss in their own lives will likely find something in the series to relate to. In Rose’s garden, Steven confides in a statue of his mother: “I wish I could have met you. Then this place could make me cry.” There is a point when Amethyst vents frustration and resentment toward Greg for Rose’s death, declaring ” I always had someone who was there for me, until she started hanging out with you!” Through the younger characters especially, we see the internal struggle of people fighting ( and often failing) to come to terms with the loss of a loved one. Healing is a process that takes time and involves relapse, and the show’s writers don’t try to hide it. In the episode “Reformed” the series takes a moment to poke fun at itself, when Amethyst incredulously asks: “Who wants to watch a cartoon about people crying?” But the truth is, when children are allowed to see strong, heroic characters struggle with realistic trials, it shows that no matter how strong you are, your emotions are valid. Empathy and strength are not antonyms.
When it comes to character design and diversity, SU is top of the line. Rebecca Sugar and the Crewniverse have gone above and beyond expectations with their designs. Tall, short, skinny, large, muscular, petite, the SU cast of characters have it all. A good few of the characters are even–yes–fat. In the case of the Gems, who can take on virtually any physical form they want, it reveals that in fact, they choose to be that way. At no point is any characters’ body type made the butt of a joke, or rarely even focused on at all. One of many examples isRose Quartz—depicted as a powerful and borderline ethereal leader—is something depressingly rare in media of any form: a fat woman who is repeatedly portrayed as beautiful, revered and possessing of grace.
Or rather, the complete destruction of them. I save this for last because I personally find it among the most important lessons for children to learn–that they can be anything, like anything, love anyone and be anyone they wish to be, regardless of their biological sex. The erasure of gender stereotypes is a slow but strengthening process in our society, and Steven Universe lends a helping hand. Steven, the main character, is our hero, with superpowers and an increasingly important role to play in both the human and the Gem worlds. He is associated primarily with the color pink. His personal weapon is a glowing, rose-tinted shield. Steven cries, he openly shows affection. He sleeps with stuffed animals. He shows his emotions openly, often in ways boys in our society are told from birth is not”masculine”. As the Gem species is primarily a female-presenting race, Steven’s caregivers and the most important people in his life are, ultimately, women. Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl each serve as mother, sister, mentor and friend to Steven. They provide him with support, guidance, discipline and love, while also representing people who are quite frankly still learning themselves, and are more than capable of making mistakes. It’s safe to say this series passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. The Gems’ interactions focus on both harmony and dissonance, their internal and moral struggles, and their unconditional love for Steven and for each other.
Steven, Connie, the Gems and the entirety of the SU cast are the walking definitions of variety. They fight. They win, they lose, they love. They are wise and foolish, cautious and rash, prim on some occasions and downright unruly at others. Pearl is shown to be both a skilled engineer and a master swordsman,and trains bookworm Connie to follow in her steps. Garnet–perhaps the most stoic of the Crystal Gems–is also the most empathetic. Lapis Lazuli, one of the most elegant characters of the series, makes fart noises at the Mayor in her debut appearance. Characters who are cool and composed by nature can break into sudden fits of laughter, tears or rage, and it feels perfectly natural. The characters of Steven Universe are among the most flexible and dynamic of any series I’ve experienced in my lifetime, and they are undoubtedly the driving force of their story.
There is so much more I’d like to point out, so many excellent, commendable aspects of this series that make it one of the most groundbreaking programs on television. But as I said before, it’s a series best experienced fresh, and spoiler-free. It’s a fusion of dimension, wonder and incredible wisdom, and it’s an animated cartoon for kids. Recognize it for all that is, anticipate all it can become, but don’t think of its target as an insult. Steven Universe casts a spell that will make our youth “stronger in the real ways”, perhaps for as many thousands of years as the Gems themselves can live.
( For more information and future updates on Steven Universe, tune in to StevenCrewniverse for behind-the-scenes art, demos, con updates and more straight from the SU Crew! For new viewers looking to find an additional preview of what the show has to offer, check out the fanmade SU trailer: “ The Best Traits are Hereditary”. )