How Steven Universe opened the door to new LGBTQ+ cartoons

Steven Universe proved that LGBTQ+ cartoon characters were more than the butt of the joke, they were heroes whose stories could find an audience.

In 2013, Rebecca Sugar made television and LGBTQ+ history by creating the show Cartoon Network Steven Universe. Rebecca Sugar is a creator and artist who has shown the world how beautiful, uplifting and successful LGBTQ+ stories told by members of the queer community can be. After several years of writing for adventure timeSugar moved on to creating Steven Universeand product Steven Universe’s film and Steven Universe Futurefrom 2013 to 2019. The world of Steven Universe was one of the first cartoon shows to explore LGBTQ+ characters and relationships through authentic portrayal.

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Steven Universe followed a group of gem-based aliens called the Crystal Gems. Prior to Steven’s birth, these Gem aliens were ruled by a group of four dictators named The Great Diamond Authority. They wielded power over Gems they considered “inferior” and colonized foreign planets for the glory of their empire. Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, gathered a group of rebellious Gems and fought to defend Earth and defend Gem’s rights to forge their own destiny. Powerful Rose Quartz was assisted by Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl, which became known as Crystal Gems. The Diamonds eventually abandoned Earth after decimating most of the Rose Quartz forces. In the aftermath of this intergalactic war, Rose begins a relationship with human rock musician Greg Universe and then abandons her physical form to give birth to Steven. The show Steven Universe follows Steven as he comes to terms with his powers, history, and purpose as half-jewel and half-human in a world of intergalactic chaos, where he struggles to find someone like himself.


Related: Best Steven Universe Season 1 Episodes

Steven Universe aired at a time when most LGBTQ+ characters in cartoon shows were only included as the butt of the joke, but Rebecca Sugar’s show paved the way for more progressive representation. For five seasons, 160 episodes and a spin-off series (Steven Universe Future), Rebecca Sugar portrayed characters with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities with respect, dignity and nuance. Characters like Garnet, Pearl, and Steven dealt with issues of self-acceptance, unrequited love, and found family that was deeply connected to most audience members, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community. Steven Universe portrays various LGBTQ+ characters finding love, fighting battles, and dealing with heartbreak in an epic sci-fi cartoon show, and as a result created a better world for LGBTQ+ representation in cartoons.


LGBTQ+ Cartoon Stories Struggled Before Steven Universe


Smithers on a payphone in The Simpsons

Before Steven Universe, most LGBTQ+ characters in cartoons were presented as a joke or relegated to minor character status, if included. For example, the character Smithers in The simpsons was arguably the most well-known gay cartoon character for a long time. Smithers has been heavily implicated as being gay ever since The simpsons early seasons, and his infatuation with Mr. Burns was often played for comedy. Smither’s sexuality was never seriously explored until 2016, when The simpsons season 27, episode 17, “The Burns Cage” aired and confirmed he was gay. The writers of adult cartoon shows like family guy Where South Park often used LGBTQ+ characters like Mr. Garrison or Herbert the Pervert to derive humor from harmful gay stereotypes and rarely humanized them for audiences. More often than not, cartoon shows would simply not feature any LGBTQ+ characters. Even Rebecca Sugar herself wasn’t allowed to explore a relationship between characters Marceline and Princess Bubblegum while they were working on adventure time. However, in 2013 Steven Universe changed everything and people loved it.


Steven Universe and its progression in queer storytelling


Steven Universe examined many gay-centric issues through its main cast of characters. At first, Steven Universe’s LGBTQ+ themes were presented through metaphors, but eventually the show explicitly portrayed same-sex relationships and portrayed non-binary characters. Although the Crystal Gems are coded as female (their appearance coincides with Western ideas of femininity, and the Gems mostly use her/his pronouns), they are technically asexual sentient aliens in the show’s text. This has caused some controversy as to the genders of gems, but the important thing to note is that they do not conform to typical gender identities and are not limited by them and can exist outside of the male gender binary. and feminine. Impressive, Steven Universe managed to present heartfelt songs and epic battles, while deconstructing societal expectations of the genre. In Steven Universe Future season 1, episode 9, “Little Graduation”, a non-binary human character is introduced when Sadie began dating her new partner Shep (Indya Moore). This human character is explicitly non-binary and uses pronouns to more specifically demonstrate how people exist and thrive outside of the typical gender binary.


Steven Universe also deepened ideas about gender roles. Unlike most of his male superhero counterparts, Steven hasn’t primarily been about violence or combat. Steven solved his negotiation and comprehension problems. Steven showed that there is more than one way to be strong; he can wear a robe, cry and be the strongest hero in the universe because he valued himself and the people around him. Gems and Steven’s friends (like Connie and Sadie) have also shown that women (or female-coded aliens) are capable of being strong warriors and wise teachers. Steven Universe does not limit its characters by gender roles, but demonstrated that the characters’ interpersonal relationships and sense of self-worth were more important than preconceived societal expectations regarding their gender.

Related: Steven Universe Future’s ‘Mr Universe’ Reveals Last Name Origin

Steven Universe also introduced romantic pairings which showed that not all relationships had to be between a man and a woman, a rarity for cartoon shows at the time. The character Pearl is revealed to have been deeply in love with Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, which is an internal conflict that is explored throughout the series. Pearl then began a romantic flirtation in Steven Universe with a mysterious girl. Steven Universe also introduced the characters of Ruby and Saphire, two female coded gems who fell in love and merged to form Garnet. Garnet was perhaps the strongest and wisest crystal gem, as the love of Ruby and Sapphire fueled its power. The two Gems finally got married in Steven Universe season 5, episode 23, “Reunited” in an episode that celebrated their love (which was unfortunately censored in some countries for being too queer). The show’s multiple gay romances have demonstrated that Steven Universe wanted to provide diverse LGBTQ+ relationships to root for, to demonstrate that there isn’t just one way for same-sex relationships to exist. LGBTQ+ representation in popular media is extremely important and Steven Universe recognized this. Characters like Garnet and Pearl were key to developing LGBTQ+ relationships in cartoons because they were main characters, making it easier for audiences to understand their struggles and victories.


How Steven Universe opened the door to new LGBTQ+ cartoons


Luz and Amity in Grom

After Steven Universe aired, a more positive queer portrayal began to appear in various cartoons. adventure time finally canonized the romantic relationship between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline in the hour-long episode of Adventure Time: Distant Worlds titled “Obsidian” which aired in 2020. Shows like The owl house and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power began to feature main characters who were in same-sex relationships and began to feature non-binary characters in the cast. The show Esoteric demonstrated how adding LGBTQ+ representation can actually help fix the worst attributes of a beloved property. Although Steven Universe and Rebecca Sugar should not have all the credit for the portrayal present in these shows, Steven Universe paved the way for these shows to not have to fight so hard to prove that LGBTQ+ relationships deserved to be represented in cartoons. Any executive who suggested not greenlighting a cartoon show that featured LGBTQ+ characters because it wouldn’t find an audience can now easily go wrong using Steven Universe and it’s popularity to demonstrate that LGBTQ+ representation in cartoons can be successful.


Sure, by Steven Universe representation is not perfect. Their non-binary portrayal could have been more explicitly and frequently featured and there weren’t many male-centric same-sex relationships present in the show beyond the romance between the minor characters Mr. Smiley and Mr. Frowney. Steven Universe the pilot started and how cartoons were unacceptable and hostile regarding queer representation before Steven Universethe show’s portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters as real-life characters rather than superficial jokes was groundbreaking. Steven Universe featured main characters whose gender identity and sexuality could not be ignored or mocked indefinitely. by Steven Universe the flaws and criticisms shouldn’t be ignored, but the fact that it made queer characters in cartoons more than just a joke. Steven Universe made LGBTQ+ characters heroes in their own right because they were authentic to themselves.

Next: Steven Universe Learned To Say Goodbye To Friends In ‘Little Graduation’

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