Steven Universe - Milestone of Representation in Children's Shows

Painted in a vibrant color palette ranging from dreamy pastels to acidic neon shades, Steven Universe is an aesthetic work in children’s shows. The show follows Steven, a boy and the titular character, and his guardians the crystal gems, mineral-extraterrestrial beings with unique powers. Witty, adventurous, and sometimes heartbreaking, the story is a marvel for both children and adults alike. What makes the series a remarkable work is its inclusiveness, standing out among other children's shows. Its messages of confidence, love, and strength resonate through its vivid cast and onto the audience; particularly striking the hearts of those who often do not see themselves represented in the media. Just as the colors of the animation are diverse, so are its cast: varied in gender, sexuality, and form. 

Image courtesy of Youtubethe three crystal gems: Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst are focal characters.

Support for same-sex love

A foremost topic much focused on and praised by fans, gay relationships are key in Steven Universe; explored by lesbian relationships among the gems. Particularly the gems Ruby and Sapphire are clearly portrayed as a couple, whose relationship is highlighted extensively throughout the series. From tumultuous times to deep romantic moments, their tie is exhibited in great detail without reducing it to a static, sappy romance. Children can learn and feel assured that attraction to the same sex is nothing to be shameful about. Furthermore, they can be taught that gay relationships do not always go smoothly like any kind of relationship; though there may be troubles from time to time, mutual understanding is important. Towards the end, the two celebrate their wedding, sealing their eternal love for each other. Showing a gay wedding so openly on a children’s show is a wondrous feat, a milestone in LGBTQ representation. Steven Universe is open regarding its portrayals of gay attraction, clearly showing signs and gestures of affection between female characters. 

Image courtesy of Youtube: Ruby (left) and Sapphire (right) finally kiss on their wedding

Female empowerment

One visual feature that can be easily noted in the show is the immense female cast. The vast majority of characters in Steven Universe are female, with the gems comprised entirely of female or female-coded characters. This fact alone sets Steven Universe apart from other shows and other media. Where else are women the majority of the cast, both gems and humans alike are strong and capable of numerous tasks. Connie, Steven’s friend, gradually learns and trains to become a skilled swordfighter; protecting her loved ones and playing a vital role in aiding the gems against enemies. They are also visually empowered, exhibiting looks and expressions of confidence in times of combat, which forms a major part of the action. In addition to power, they are shown to be experienced in other areas, such as giving emotional support in times of distress. In place of his mother, the gems (Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl) act as Steven’s surrogate parents, offering him loving care and valuable lessons. Although the females are nurturing, as seen in the case of the gems raising Steven, they are beyond the subordinate stereotypical role frequently given to women. 

Image courtesy of Youtube: Garnet battles Jasper, an enemy; both are female and actively engage in combat 

Body diversity

Unlike the overused, stereotypical female design so often used in cartoons, with hourglass forms and slender limbs, the women of Steven Universe come in many sizes and shapes. Ranging from the tall, curved build of Garnet to the petite, ballerina-esque figure of Pearl, the female characters exhibit a diverse collection of forms. While some such as the aforesaid Pearl have feminine figures, others like the villain Jasper are muscular and more or less “masculine.” It is important not to forget the protagonist Steven himself, who enjoys a chubby body and is never shamed for it. Steven Universe supports body positivity by exposing children to a diverse range of body types without making jokes centered around them. With so much media that either degrades “atypical” body forms or only shows stereotypical models, children are influenced to believe that body shapes should follow "perfect" forms designated to specific genders. Plus-sized people, for example, have long been confined to limited roles, usually in a negative light as the butt of jokes. But in Steven Universe, nobody is put to shame. This is why the show has partnered with cosmetics company Dove to promote self-esteem through a series of animated commercials. Image courtesy of Youtube: Steveonnie (explained below) surrounded by the gems in a Dove commercial

Breaking gender norms

Steven Universe is iconic for breaking gender norms through strong, confident characters. One of these being Steveonnie, a fusion of Steven and Connie, his female friend (below). In the world of Steven Universe, gems (Steven is half gem) have the ability to fuse with another to form another stronger entity. Using his gem power, Steven fuses with Connie to become essentially a non-binary person. Perhaps one of the first non-binary characters to appear in a children's show, Steveonnie is shown having visual features than meander between female and male (even having some facial hair in one episode). To further emphasize their ambiguous gender, various people are shown to be fazed by Steveonnie's looks regardless of gender. After some initial confusion over their identity, Steveonnie later accepts themselves and affirms being proud of who they are. It is worth noting that in one commercial of the aforementioned Dove collaboration series, they are confirmed to be intersex, non-binary, and use they/them pronouns. On top of introducing a non-binary character, the show also breaks walls separating femininity and masculinity when Steven substitutes for a female performer, donning her feminine outfit. What is important here is that he is not mockingly portrayed, as well as the supportive audience who cheer him on. Usually when a character, almost always a male, dresses up in feminine garb, the depiction and subsequent reaction is comedic; making the mismatch of gender and outfit a subject of ridicule. 

Image courtesy of Youtube: Steveonnie, the non-binary fusion of Steven (male) with his friend Connie (female)

From the perspective of a non-binary person, Steven Universe is a lovely show much needed by many. The show reminds just how limited children's TV shows were back when ideas concerning feminism or LGBTQ seemed nonexistent. Having lived with heteronormative media throughout childhood, discovering your identity becomes a long process, hindered by a lack of representation. Without seeing someone like yourself on screen, there is little choice but to make the best of what is offered or simply pretend in order to "fit in." But in Steven Universe, it is made clear that people of all sorts exist. For the adults out there who never had a chance to see themselves on TV when they were little, the series provides that comfort and fun they missed, painted in pinks and blues.