I’m sure that I’m not in the target demographic for Steven Universe, a Cartoon Network series that has been airing from November 2013 to the present day. That’s probably also true of a lot of music I consume (hence this website) and entertainment I watch (hence this other website) so I don’t pay it much attention. I watch what entertains me, amuses me, stirs an emotional response in me, has the ability to change hearts and minds, or all of the above.
Steven Universe is in that very rare “all of the above” category which is what makes it such a high quality show, even though I’m “too old to be watching cartoons.” It was a purely accidental discovery when channel surfing a few years ago after it first started airing. Peedee Fryman, the younger brother of conspiracy obsessed character Ronaldo Fryman, just happened to be having a conversation with Steven as I tuned in. Even though it probably shouldn’t exist considering Cartoon Network owns the rights to this clip (and routinely has Steven Universe material kicked off YouTube – even tributes to the show) I’m happy that I can share this moment with you that made me a first made me a fan of the show.
“You work away your life and what does it get you? You get cash — cash that can’t buy back what the job takes.”
It’s an incredibly powerful soliloquy from a relatively minor character, one we haven’t seen or heard much from since — and maybe we should. Peedee had an incredible amount of wisdom for someone so young. That’s one of the reasons this show is so emotionally stirring though. Even minor characters who only get one shot to be featured in an episode are treated like fully realized individuals, with their own dreams, desires, and problems in this world. They may exist to give context to the world Steven and his family live in, but as Steven often likes to remind us (in an occasionally naive but kindhearted way) he and the Crystal Gems are here to protect humanity and all living things. The “minor players” are just as important as any other person in their home town of Beach City, or anywhere else in the world.
Peedee Fryman isn’t the point of this editorial though — as was the case in this episode he’s much bigger than him. The actress pictured above, Deedee Lynn Magno Hall (Deedee Magno for short), provides the voice of one of the show’s key characters or “Crystal Gems” as they are known. Her character Pearl is a jill-of-all-trades in Steven’s life. She’s a mother, a teacher, an engineer, an expert in hand to hand combat with a sword, and so much more. What we don’t know about her initially, which is revealed episode by episode as the show sucks you in 15 minutes at a time, is that she is also a rebel. Her species of gem are living creatures who are bred to serve other gems, or as one snidely calls her “a common pearl,” yet she defied both her birth and her own people to stand for a cause.
Pearl decided to protect the Earth from other gems who would have mined it out until it was left a hollow core, but she was also motivated by her love for Rose Quartz, the leader of the Crystal Gems and the one who they get their credo to love all living things from. It’s too complicated to go into great detail here in this editorial, but the Crystal Gems also defied their kind in another way – love. It’s not simply that an adult female to female relationship was considered wrong in their society, but that in fact any relationship of any kind with another gem was wrong. Two gems that are emotionally compatible can “fuse” to create an entirely new person which has the traits and memories of both yet exists as a distinct person with their own emotions and desires. The lead character Garnet (voiced by Estelle) is just such a fusion – so happily in love that she stays fused ALMOST all of the time.
What happens over time as you watch Steven Universe, without you even thinking about it or realizing it, is that your concept of relationships expands. This probably makes it dangerous or threatening to Christian fundamentalists who find the very notion that Garnet can be identified as the living embodiment of lesbian relationships abhorrent. It’s entirely normal to the Gems though, because before Rose left (again it’s complicated) she and Pearl were in a relationship, and in fact all of the Crystal Gems have fused with each other at some point. It’s also made clear that compatibility is key – if two gems don’t get along their fusion is unstable and can break down at any moment. That’s a pretty good allegory for real relationships too – heterosexual, homosexual, asexual or otherwise. If you don’t respect your partner and vice versa the relationship just doesn’t work and ultimately falls apart.
That doesn’t mean the Gems don’t have conflicts, nor does it mean they don’t feel anger or jealousy, nor do they put ego aside for the sake of their team and their mission even when they should. Despite being aliens to the Earth of Steven’s world, they are very much human in their action and reactions. What matters though is that they care about each other, so when tensions threaten to break the team apart, they work together to overcome it and forge ahead. It’s a coming-of-age story as Steven Universe matures and learns from their example, and in the process teaches them some new and unexpected things. Outside of this fictional world though, the real world revolution of Steven Universe is that the lead characters save Steven are voiced by women — who aren’t the “Hollywood stereotype” for lead roles. Unless you’re a racist or a fool though, there’s no denying these are lovely and talented women, vocally AND physically. Deedee’s singing on this show often overwhelms me – she’s AMAZING – and that’s just mind blowing considering she’s cast on the same show where Estelle ALSO plays a lead. (Her songs for Garnet are fantastic too!)
The penultimate point I’m trying to make to you the reader is this – the reason “Steven Universe matters” is because this is a show that takes chances on AND off screen. Series creator Rebecca Sugar admits to doing this on purpose and makes no apologies about it (nor should she). Kids watching it don’t need to understand that Sugar has challenged, broken, and rewritten all the rules about what a cartoon can be or should do, but that’s exactly why the show works on a level far beyond its target demographic. If you believe that love is bigger than bigots like Kim Davis and the state of Kentucky would define it to be, it’s a revolutionary show. If you believe that women and/or women of color have been denied their fair share of voiceover roles (or acting roles in general) it’s a revolutionary show.
Above all else if you like a cartoon that has a heart and a soul, not just 12 or 22 minutes of mindless entertainment to distract you, it’s a show you can invest in as much as any hospital drama or sci-fi space opera. “Steven Universe” matters because it so successfully defies all of what was once considered to be the way things were done and always would be done, to the point it makes you stop and wonder why anybody ever thought they should be done that way in the first place.
In the world of Steven Universe, love always wins. I know we don’t live in an ideal world, but it’s the kind of world I’d like to live in, and “Steven Universe” inspires me to be a better Steven too.