Recently released in the USA on Cartoon Network, Steven Universe is a show making history. Surprisingly enough, it’s the first cartoon on the channel to be created by a woman, the woman in question being Rebecca Sugar, who made her name on the ever surreal and popular Adventure Time.
Sugar was prolific in both her song and episode writing for Adventure Time, penning a good majority of the episodes that featured Marceline the Vampire Queen, the tomboyish, rebellious, 1000-year-old monster with the appearance and personality of an angsty teen. Marceline is one of the most popular characters from the series, and a trope we are seeing more of in mainstream media (Kristen Stewart in the Twilight series can be a popular/unpopular example if you like). So with the idea in mind that Sugar enjoys writing female characters with atypical personalities and behaviour, we start to see why Steven Universe is such a breath of fresh air in a male dominated art-form.
The premise for Steven Universe is not unheard of: a young protagonist with special powers, who must learn to wield and use them for the benefit of others. Grouped with the fact that Steven can’t actually use any of his powers at will and also lives with three super heroes, and suddenly we see originality burst into the frame. Together the group is known as The Crystal Gems, who protect the population from a variety of perils using magical gems with unique powers. The premise is an homage to “magical girl” cartoons and anime, so picture the likes of Sailor Moon and…you know what I’m not going to pretend I know any other examples. In short: normal person, secret alter ego, special powers, girly stuff.
But as we can see, Steven is a young boy, not a girl, and certainly lacking powers and a glittery outfit. Step in his surrogate-sisters: Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl; three “magical” girls who act as Steven’s mentors and guardians, each offering their own unique abilities and insight to viewers.
Let’s start with Garnet, she’s the big afro-lady with the huge fists. Garnet is a lady of few words and huge strength; what she lacks in speech she makes up for in brute force and leadership. Her femininity is demonstrated through her physical maturity, with exaggerated hips and thighs symbolising her motherly attitude, and keeping her fists in proportion. Everything about Garnet’s character design is large, down to her hair and voice actor, with the hugely popular Estelle (she sung that ‘American Boy’ song) lending her vocal talents to the role. With this in mind, it is clear to see that Garnet rules with an iron fist, or magical fist, whichever you want.
Next we have Amethyst, the purple and more curvaceous member of the group. Amethyst is a glutton; like Steven she loves to eat and play around, only rarely taking things seriously. She is laid back, meaning Steven is more comfortable around her than the other gems, but also results in him learning less and winding up in trouble. Her weapon is a whip, a perfect tool for someone who wants to take a back seat from the action, hitting opponents from far away; the weapon of a trickster. We see a lot more tomboy behaviour from Amethyst; how she loves mess and rarely demonstrates responsibility. Despite this, the events she often leads Steven in to tend to become trials by fire, accidentally becoming the more valuable lessons.
Lastly we have Pearl, by far my favourite of the three for a variety of reasons. Her personality and intelligence defines her as the tactician of the group. Every action and plan she executes is thought out with all possibilities considered, and the majority of humour related to her derives from when another, more spontaneous plan is more successful. Her design shows just how far the final product of the show has come as well, if you see the image below:
This screenshot from the pilot shows how the style was more realistic; characters were drawn with meticulous detail, right down to their accessories. Then final product has Pearl drawn with a much more minimalist and aesthetically pleasing style. She embodies a ballerina-warrior persona, with a thin figure, obligatory tutu, and an arsenal of blades at her disposal. Although she fights primarily with a spear, one episode shows her to have an array of swords hidden away as well. She is the most sensible of the three, as well as the most caring. Pearl takes Steven’s well-being seriously, usually resulting in her refusing his inclusion in most of the missions they partake in. Like Garnet, Pearl is motherly and considerate, but by no means over the top, which adds to the overall appeal of the show, which I shall discuss more later.
Last week’s episode of Steven Universe introduced yet another female character who broke the convention of stereotypical femininity. Her name was Connie, and she was quickly introduced as Steven’s love interest. So let’s take a look at her from one of the first moments she is witnessed.
From this instance we spot a few things that rewrite the rules of typical love interests in Western cartoons. First off, she isn’t even drawn to be obviously pretty; no eyelashes, no lips, no real indication she’s a girl except for the hair and dress. As the episode progresses we learn that she is a more introvert character, with no real friends or concept of fun, and we get a hint of that here. On a long stretch of beach, Connie is casually reading and doesn’t even notice Steven until he falls off his bike, even then not saying a word. Connie is a girl light years away from the “popular girl at school” type that has suffocated teen romance in every form since romance began (probably), not least because even her appearance shuns Western stereotypes. Obviously we do not know Connie’s race, but she is unique in that, as a fictional character, her design does not conform to the Western mainstream. My first impression was of a vague similarity to Marjane Satrapi’s frequent self-portrait in Persepolis, a graphic novel and animated film that rejects Middle-Eastern attitudes, whilst also criticisng the more pretentious aspects of Western culture.
Regardless of what ethnicity Connie is supposed to portray, her appearance both a breath of fresh air, and very adorable. The entire episode involves Steven and Connie becoming accidentally trapped in a magical bubble shield of Steven’s creation. They inadvertently learn more about each other as they attempt to escape, becoming familiar with each other’s personalities and back story. Connie isn’t allowed to eat donuts because her parents say they have “trans-fats”, Steven insistently states that his plans will work, despite never coming to fruition, overall the two have little in common and rather conflicting views, but nevertheless they enjoy their time together. The episode is void of any outright flirting or romance, leaving what’s left to unfold being a genuine friendship, as both characters feed off each other’s personalities. Connie appreciates being exposed to Steven’s eccentric and youthful nature, and Steven benefits from Connie’s logic and intelligence.
The episode’s climax, thankfully, has a monster chasing the two, and Steven once again having to use the few skills he has to hand in order to defeat it. Despite the poignancy of the main plot of the episode, the show would not feel complete without a fantasy scene, and the final chase delivers it well.
Scenes like this keep the show from delving too deep into “teen drama”, and keep things interesting. It also allows Connie to witness Steven’s usefulness, after having a mini break-down on him in the previous scene due to his lack of a useful plan. Each episode we move one step closer to seeing Steven become the hero he’s meant to be, and his lack of powers allow for the writers to think of new and innovative ways for him to get out of these fantastical situations.
The episode ends with the crystal gems reaching the two young friends just as the battle finishes, cue a moment of sisterly humiliation, where we see Pearl and Amethyst eager to meet Steven’s new friend, and Garnet quickly step in to allow Steven some room.
The scene is a wonderful finale, and an opportunity for characters to inhabit new roles, as the embarrassing older siblings expressing their interest in their “little brother”. Nevermind the fact that they were nearly killed by a giant worm. In true cartoon style, everything returns to normal, the day is saved, and Steven is one step closer to getting his powers (and maybe a girlfriend).
I’ll conclude with my favourite aspect of Steven Universe, which is that none of the characters embody a typical nature. Female characters aren’t too feminine, and male characters aren’t too masculine. It is this blurring of gender roles that allows the show to be appealing to boys and girls; all the girls are tough as well as sweet, and the men tend to be shy, but also brave. Even an episode like this, which risks being “girly” with an overarching romance theme, battles any typicality away with a worm fight and platonic conversation. Hopefully we can see this as a step, for both audiences and animators, towards a more equal demographic in future cartoons. I mean, I’m not a gender expert or anything, but it would be nice.
If you enjoyed this write-up, you may want to watch the episode I’m actually talking about. I’ll just leave it down here: