This Steven Universe feature contains spoilers up to “Last One Out of Beach City.”
About a year ago I first started hearing about a little show called Steven Universe on Cartoon Network. It dealt with a little boy and his Gem friends saving the world. “Oh, that sounds cool,” I thought. Contrary to the general ‘cartoons suck these days’ mentality many people in their twenties have, I was sure Steven Universe was a fun show that would be fondly appreciated by its core kid audience. I just didn’t think it was really for me.
Then some gifs started appearing that made the show seem, well, pretty gay. As a pansexual man, I wanted to get excited but I’d been burned before. LGBT fans have a tendency to latch onto any possible inference of a character being gay and treat their queerness as fact. I totally understand that and have done it myself, but it’s really a let down when you watch the show and discover it wasn’t as gay as you were lead to believe. That’s what I thought all that talk was. Speculation and hope.
LGBT representation is still sadly lacking in every corner of media. It has gotten better in a lot of respects in the past ten years but in the realm of kids TV it’s still almost unheard of. It was a triumph when Legend of Korra acknowledged two of its main characters as bisexual in the last moments of its run, but LGBT fans still ached for more. Representation in shows meant for teens and adults is one thing, but to have a fun loving cartoon world acknowledge LGBT people exist and matter? That’s the kind of escapism a lot of people, young and old, need.
After a year of putting it off, the talk about Steven Universe never let up. “It’s basically The Lesbian Space Rocks Show!” people would say.
I finally gave it a shot. I sat down and just marathoned the whole thing in a few weeks. At first the show exceeded my expectations on the writing alone. They are able to do more in their eleven minute episode runtime than most shows can do with forty. The world building is incredible. The characters are bright, hilarious, and heartfelt.
The series basically follows the adventures of Steven and The Crystal Gems as they fight evil monsters and their daily interactions with the people of Beach City. It was fun and cute but I was waiting. Was it going to get gay?
Then I saw Ruby and Sapphire. To sum it up for those not familiar with the show, The Crystal Gems are basically space rocks that take a somewhat human form. Yeah, it’s a lot more complicated than that but go with me here. All of the Gems we’ve seen so far are coded as female, that being they take the form of what sound and look like women. Yes, if you want to get technical Gems don’t have a gender but really, we all know they’re women.
These Gems have the ability to fuse into more powerful Gems and that concept of fusion is central to the show. It can make or break relationships between the characters and not all fusions are good, a point which I’ll get back to in a bit.
At the end of season one we learn that Garnet, one of Steven’s guardians, is a fusion between the Gems Ruby and Sapphire. Both of them, again, are shown to be female and openly affectionate to each other. This isn’t just a friendly expression of love. They twirl each other around and kiss. In that episode Garnet sings to Jasper, an opposing Gem, about the relationship between Ruby and Sapphire that created her.
Go ahead and try to hit me if you’re able. Can’t you see that my relationship is stable? I can see you hate the way we intermingle. But I think you’re just mad ’cause you’re single.
In later episodes we see Ruby and Sapphire openly flirting and the others characters refer to it as such. This is not subtext; it’s a canonical lesbian relationship. Their fusion is an expression of love and a defiance against gem culture which frowns on fusion between different types of gems. As Garnet sings at one point, “I am made of love and it’s stronger than you.”
One could easily read Ruby and Sapphire’s fusion into Garnet as a metaphor for LGBTQ people in the real world, celebrating their love and relationships even when the establishment may want to squash it out.
To see a lesbian couple in a kids show be open and affectionate would be one thing, but Steven Universe is all about making its character well rounded. In the episode “Keystone Motel,” Garnet unfuses once again and Ruby and Sapphire argue.
This sounds simple, but it’s actually revolutionary. With LGBTQ characters in media, there’s a tendency to want to ‘protect them’. To not let them be anything but happy. I understand where that comes from, and to a point it’s necessary, but LGBTQ characters should still go through struggles just like any other character.
Here, Ruby and Sapphire are allowed to bicker and be mean to each other. They have a fight, just like any other couple, which normalizes their relationship even more. They eventually make up in the end with a flurry of kisses, which is a rare instance of lesbian characters especially getting a happy ending.
I could go on and on about those two, especially the episode that fills in their back story, but I’m delighted to say they aren’t the only canonically gay characters in the series. We also have Pearl. A perfectionist who serves as an overprotective mother to Steven, it was hinted from very early on Pearl had feelings for none other than Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz.
Again, this is a lot of back-story but go with me here. Pearl and Rose fought in a war together and Pearl was Rose’s solider. Pearl would do anything for Rose, after she liberated Pearl from the constraints of Gem society. Pearl’s devotion to Rose was so intense the two entered into a romantic relationship, demonstrated in the episode “We Need To Talk.”
From what I just described, it may sound fairly similar to Ruby and Sapphire, but Pearl and Rose’s relationship takes a heartbreaking turn. While the show has made no bones about Pearl being a lesbian, the way she rebuffs any male advance is a clear indicator of that, Rose is portrayed somewhere along the bi or pansexual spectrum. Rose has a lot of love to give and in the episode “Mr. Greg” it’s revealed Rose had many men come into her life. Pearl thought Rose would eventually choose her in the end, but she ended up with Greg Universe, Steven’s eventual father.
This completely destroyed Pearl; especially after Rose sacrificed herself to allow Steven to be born. Over the course of the series, we slowly see her come to terms with her undying love for Rose, eventually culminating in the song ‘It’s Over Isn’t It?’
You won, and she chose you, and she loved you, and she’s gone. It’s over, isn’t it? Why can’t I move on?
Thankfully she does try and move on and in “Last One Out of Beach City” she flirts up a storm with a character only known as Mystery Girl. It’s cute, it’s adorable, and it’s so beautifully gay.
To see a lesbian character go through this kind of emotional arc over such a long stretch of time just proves how committed Steven Universe is to its gay characters. They aren’t a one-note very special episode concern. They, and their relationships, are integral to the fabric of the show, even the ones that aren’t all happy.
As mentioned before, not all fusions are good. Remember Jasper? Well, she forces a fusion with another Gem, Lapis, and it’s portrayed as an extremely abusive relationship. Even when Lapis manages to escape from Jasper, it continues to haunt her. In one of the most harrowing episodes of the series, “Alone At Sea,” Jasper attempts to fuse with Lapis once more, promising that she’s changed and that Lapis is nothing without her.
I mention this because it’s powerful to see that relationships, even gay ones, can go sour. I’ve seen too many LGBT people stay in abusive relationships because they worry no one else will accept them. It’s a powerful statement that that no one should be treated the way Jasper did to Lapis. Steven Universe portrays healthy and abusive relationships with such a degree of care and sensitivity that you wonder why primetime TV hasn’t caught up with them.
This is only scratching the surface of what Steven Universe is so great at. The LGBT characters in these shows express love, but their relationships don’t define them. They have hopes and dreams outside of whom they want to end up with. They get to be badass fighters and hilarious mentors. They get to sing and dance in between preparing for an oncoming war. The show has so many good morals that I could write a whole article about them, too.
The most powerful is what the show has to say about gender. The main character of the show, Steven, openly bucks gender stereotypes. He’s not ashamed to be feminine and wears his heart on this sleeve. He cries when he has to and no one chastises him for it. When his friend Sadie can’t perform in front of the city, he eagerly dons her costume, which as you can see, is clearly a woman’s outfit. The best part? Everyone accepts it and there isn’t a single disparaging comment.
The show bucks gender stereotypes even more when Steven fuses with a human, his best friend Connie. Together, they form Stevonnie who has been confirmed to use gender-neutral pronouns and Garnet refers them as such. Steven and Connie don’t bat an eye at becoming a genderqueer character. Stevonnie has only showed up a few times, but I’m excited to see where the show takes them, especially with a complete lack of genderqueer characters on TV.
Steven Universe is what LGBTQ viewers need because it’s meant for kids. It normalizes these relationships to impressionable young minds and helps those who do end up identifying as LGBTQ discover themselves. The show is great on its own merits, but what it does for its gay relationships and characters? That puts it over the top.
So if you need some escapism in this bigoted world? Give Steven Universe a shot. It’s a series where everyone is accepted for who they are and are celebrated for it. LGBTQ people could use a show where they win in the end. Especially now.
As the Crystal Gems sing in the show’s full theme,
The odds are against us, this won’t be easy, but we’re not going to do it alone. We are the Crystal Gems! We’ll always save the day. And if you think we can’t? We’ll always find a way.
Shamus Kelley will always win the fight and go out for pizza. Follow him on Twitter!