"Steven Universe" Is Teaching Kids Acceptance

Updated on March 4, 2020
Santi Salinas profile image

Santiago Salinas is a student at The College of New Jersey pursuing a degree in Public Health, Psychology and Social Justice.

Steven Universe is a children's cartoon that is aired on Cartoon Network. The show was created by Rebecca Sugar and released its first episode in 2013, with its final episode airing in 2019.

After the show's end, Sugar then created a movie titled Steven Universe, and after that she created a follow-up mini-series called Steven Universe Future. Each of these shows has a different storyline to them but remain intertwined with each other. If you have not seen any episodes and are planning to then be warned that there will be some major spoilers in here.

What Steven Universe Is All About

Steven Universe is the show that follows a young boy who is a half-human half-alien hybrid as a result of his mother, an alien, falling in love with a human man, his father. Along with him are three aliens who were friends of his mother and made a promise to her to raise Steven and teach him the ways of their species. The alien species are called gems.

The gems, while resembling women, are genderless and are named after their gemstones. For example, the three gems that live with Steven are named Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. The gems come from a distant planet called Homeworld, which is a planet governed by the Great Diamond Authority composed of four gems known as the Diamonds (White Diamond, Yellow Diamond, Blue Diamond, and Pink Diamond) and are worshiped as Goddesses. The ultimate goal of the Diamonds is to build an intergalactic empire by conquering different planets. Each Diamond is entitled to conquer their own planet and rule over it individually as opposed to a collective effort.

The planet Earth was conquered by Pink Diamond (Steven's mother), but she saw the life that existed on Earth and opposed the idea of conquering the Earth as it would result in a complete extinction of all life on the planet. Pink opposed the idea of conquering Earth so much that she gathered like-minded gems and formed a rebellion army known as the Crystal Gems under the alias, Rose-Quartz. She knew that the Earth could not be free from Homeworld's empire completely if she was still there to rule. She then faked her shattering (shattering is when a gem's gemstone is broken beyond repair which results in the gem's death) with Pearl disguised as Rose-Quartz in order to make it look like a legitimate execution. As a result, the other three diamonds saw Earth as a failed colony and wanted nothing more than to wipe it out of the universe. This is where Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl come in. As former, and the remaining, soldiers of Pink's army they are tasked with protecting the Earth from threats from Homeworld.

While this may seem like a regular cartoon for kids, Steven Universe actually touched on real social issues and promotes acceptance within kids at a young age to help them understand that everyone is different and we must appreciate their uniqueness.

This is Shep, the non-binary character in Steven Universe Future talking tyring to calm Steven down.
This is Shep, the non-binary character in Steven Universe Future talking tyring to calm Steven down.

Steven Universe Promotes LGBTQ+ Equality

What makes Steven Universe such a revolutionary cartoon is the show's portrayal of homosexuality and LGBTQ+ individuals. In the series, we see many romances blossom between the main characters. Most of these relationships are between two individuals of the same sex or identify their relationship as part of the LGBTQ+ community.

One relationship we see is the relationship with Garnet's two halves, Ruby and Sapphire. Garnet is a fusion, a type of gem that is composed of two or more gems through a synchronized ritual. While all fusions are temporary, Ruby and Sapphire are able to stay fused as Garnet forever because of their strong love for each other. While the gems are genderless, Ruby and Sapphire are referred to with the pronouns she/her. As a result, this makes them a lesbian couple and Garnet is their love given form. Sugar's purpose in creating Garnet this way is to show to kids that love is without rules and it can turn into something as beautiful as Garnet when given time and with the right person.

The most notable point in their relationship is when the two get married in the 2019 episode, "Reunion." This episode was a testament to all LGBTQ+ couples, married or dating, showing them that marriage is now possible thanks to legislation passed by President Obama in 2012 and society's general acceptance of homosexuality as time progresses. It is no question that during 2019's Pride Parade in New York that some lesbian married couples cosplayed as Ruby and Sapphire as a result of Sugar's progressive view of sexuality and sends the message to the children that homosexuality is not a sin, but rather a way of life.

Other romantic interests have developed in the series as well, albeit not as major as Ruby and Sapphire but still very significant. One romance is between Pearl and Rose-Quartz (Pink Diamond). Since the two spent so much time together, it is no question that Pearl and Rose will develop feelings for each other. While we never see these two gems in an actual romantic relationship, Pearl's love for Rose can be seen through her actions and through her constant need to be by her side. While Sugar shows homosexuality in the form of relationships between the characters, she also uses individual characters to send the message that the LGBTQ+ community is entitled to the same rights as everyone.

In the mainstream media, characters who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community are incorporated in the shows, some fail at promoting the message that the LGBTQ+ community is entitled to rights as any other community. One show that attempted to do this was Queer as Folk, a Showtime series that aired from 2000 to 2005. While this show did have progressive views about sexuality, the show's characters were overly sexualized and it gave the viewers the notion that all gay men and lesbian women are promiscuous people and are the main reason for the spread of diseases such as HIV. In one episode, Ben, who is a gay man living with HIV, goes on a date with a man who attempts to have unprotected sex with him because he wants to get the virus in order to be "liberated". This portion of the episode sends the very wrong message that all gay men are actually seeking out the virus in order to spread it in the population. In shows like Queer as Folk, the characters' sexuality is the only thing that is prominent in their personality and nothing more. Sugar, however, develops the characters to show that there is more to them than what they identify as.

One character that demonstrates this is Shep, a non-binary character that appears in Steven Universe Future. Shep's biologically assigned sex goes unspecified and they are given the features of both a man and a woman. Shep is also a musician, a poet, and an overall caring person to anyone that meets them. The reason Sugar develops Shep in this manner is that she wants the viewers to recognize that there are people like Shep living in the world and we must all be conscious of their preferred gender pronouns and it also encourages parents to teach their children to respect non-binary people and to not judge their decisions in life. Sugar also emphasizes the fact that you should not have to treat a non-binary person any different than a cis-gender man or woman.

Sugar's portrayal of homosexuality and LGBTQ+ individuals can lead the viewers to see that identifying as anything other than heterosexual is nothing to be ashamed of and that society should be more accepting of those who are different.

It Humanizes Those Struggling With Mental Health

Mental health, to some, is not as important as physical health. When mental health is associated with a person, they are labeled as crazy and they belong in the "loony bin". However, those who are suffering from mental illness are not crazy nor do they belong in the "loony bin" and Sugar reveals that fact in Steven Universe.

In the show, the ones who are in mental distress are Pearl and Steven. Pearl, while she appears to have it together on the outside, is wrestling with her own demons on the inside. One of her demons can be seen when she is dealing with the fact that Rose is gone and she chose to love someone else other than her. She feels abandoned by Rose because she did not love Pearl as Pearl loved Rose, what made it worse is that Rose decided to pursue a romantic relationship with Steven's father, Greg Universe, which left Pearl in mental distress. Pearl can be seen taking her anger out on Steven, Garnet and Amethyst whenever Rose comes up in conversation, especially when she is presented with the idea that she was not given any special treatment from Rose. While Pearl's condition is not explicitly stated, it can be inferred that she is suffering from PTSD. Her reliving the past with Rose Quartz and her being taken away from her by Greg Universe is exemplified throughout the series. In one episode, Pearl is seen having a dream about Rose with them spending a lot of time together with Greg appearing out of nowhere and ruining their good time. This instance is not the only one; Pearl is going through a lot as a result of her losing Rose. While Pearl is trying to cope with the loss of a loved one, Steven is seen to also have problems with his mental stability.

In the series Steven Universe Future, a grown-up Steven is seen trying to navigate through his new life as an adviser to gems in the new era. While he is doing a lot of good, Steven is also dealing with the feeling of abandonment and regret as a result of his mother's actions to the people close to her. So far in the mini-series, he can be seen throwing temper tantrums which cause him to turn pink and increase the strength of his powers. These tantrums are a result of the consequences of his mother's actions. He is having trouble coping with the deeds that his mother did during her life and it is also hard for him to be able to open up to anyone about the struggles he is going through. However, instead of only portraying Steven in a sensitive light, Sugar decides to also include Steven's personality and all of the elements that make him Steven as well. Sugar's choice in doing this is pointing out proves one thing, people are not their mental illness.

Including Steven and Pearl's other characteristics reveals that people who are struggling with mental health problems are not defined by their condition. Sugar purposefully makes these characters have mental health issues to prove that physical strength cannot protect your mental ability and also that anyone can suffer from mental illness. She also reveals that even the superheroes who save the day need help sometimes.

Ruby and Sapphire embracing each other after being separated when it is revealed their love is a crime in the eyes of Homeworld.
Ruby and Sapphire embracing each other after being separated when it is revealed their love is a crime in the eyes of Homeworld.

It Promotes Interracial Dating

In American history, interracial dating has been frowned upon. During the Jim Crow era, it was illegal for African Americans to marry White Americans because it would "disrupt" the civil order. However, after those laws were vetoed and laws were passed protecting people's rights to marriage, Americans are generally not a huge fan of interracial dating due to being uncomfortable or the culture's social unwritten rules. This can be attributed to the historical laws in society that have alienated interracial couples.

Some assume that it is only white Americans that have a problem with interracial couples, but this is far from the truth. Some African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans can be pretty backwards when it comes to viewing interracial relationships. This can be seen in both real life and in mainstream media. In the HBO comedy series Sex and the City, Samantha dates an African American record producer because he treats her right and gives her the intimacy she needs. However, his older sister does not approve of the relationship because the fact Samantha is a white woman who can never understand the struggles of growing up black in America. While the statement that Samantha cannot truly understand the struggles of the African American community, this is not a justified reason for disapproving of the relationship between them. This same ignorance can also be seen in Steven Universe. However, instead of including race in it, Sugar decides to take a different approach to it.

In the series, Sugar decides to portray interracial couples in the form of different gem groups and the interracial relationships can be seen with the fusions that they form with each other. One prime example of this is Garnet. Garnet is a fusion of the gems Ruby and Sapphire. In the words of Steven, she is their love given form. Ruby and Sapphire represent the idea of interracial couples based on their different cultural groups. Sapphire is a rare aristocratic gem who fits into society with a high class status whereas Ruby is a common soldier whose only purpose is to serve and protect the aristocratic gems of Homeworld. When the tow first fuse into Garnet, on accident, they are met with nothing but disgust and death threats by the other aristocratic gems around them. The gems all blame Ruby for her incompetence to be able to successfully protect Sapphire and they also comment on how their fusion is unheard of.

Later in the episode, the only one who finds beauty in the fusion is Rose Quartz saying how Garnet should never question who she is and she should actually embrace her new form. Rose's comments on how Garnet should be proud of who she is rather than questioning who she is is a subtle comment made by Sugar to interracial children everywhere. In America, there is a form of discrimination known as colorism, which is discrimination or prejudice based on skin color. During the slave era of America, dark skin slaves were given field jobs while lighter skin slaves were given house jobs, a subtle way of the masters saying that they valued the slaves who resembled white Americans more. This created prejudice against lighter skin Americans by some darker skin Americans with the justification that, "they are not 'black' enough to understand our struggles". Sugar uses Ruby, Sapphire and Garnet to reveal that it does not matter who you are and where you come from, what matter is only that you are beautiful and unique in your own way and that you should not let society teach you to be ashamed of where you come from and what your roots are.

Ruby and Sapphire on their wedding day challenging gender roles with their choice of clothing.
Ruby and Sapphire on their wedding day challenging gender roles with their choice of clothing.

"Steven Universe" Challenges Gender Roles

Men and women have to very different "normal" roles in society. Men are seen as the breadwinners and women are seen as homebodies that maintain the house and only serve the men's needs. However, as times move forward, so did society's mentality. Women took less pride in being homebodies and prioritized finding a career over getting married and starting a family. While not all women have this mentality, society has evolved to allow women to find purpose outside of the household. However, there are some who believe that women should not find purpose outside of the house and they should stick to their traditional roles in society. Men are also deferred from being house husbands because it is not a "manly" thing to do. Because of societal standards, men and women who try to steer away from their traditional roles are ostracized and seen as less than. However, Steven Universe decides to challenge these roles and the show also glorifies those who decide to live at outside of societal standards.

One way that Sugar challenges gender roles is to have all the superheroes, with the exception of Steven, be female. While the gems are genderless, they all resemble females in one way or another and they are constantly referred to with the pronouns she and her. While there are many female superheroes out there, they are most seen alongside other male superheroes. In contrast, the gems are only seen with the "female" heroes throughout the series and there is no mention of a male gem in Homeworld.

Another way that Sugar challenges gender roles, which is by far the most iconic challenge to gender roles, is the wedding of Ruby and Sapphire. The reason for this is because of the way Ruby and Sapphire are dressed. Ruby, even though resembling a female, is more of a masculine gem who wears male styled clothing while Sapphire is a more feminine gem who is always seen wearing a dress. At the wedding, Ruby is the one wearing the wedding gown and Sapphire is the one wearing the tuxedo. The gems are also seen wearing tuxedos instead of dresses. Sugar does this to reveal that a man and a woman should not be confined to the norms of society and rather they should break away from them.

© 2020 Santiago Salinas

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