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How Cartoon Network’s ‘Steven Universe’ Gets Diversity Right

That’s right—a Cartoon Network show is setting the pace for intersectional representation.

Social movements have been a staple of the 21st century.

From feminism to LGBT+ rights, modern technology has made voicing concerns about the rights of disenfranchised groups much easier. And although the practice of focusing on historically marginalized groups has not yet caught up with the outcry, multiple forms of media are getting there. But, who would have guessed that the show that fully embraces strong female characters and gay relationships would be a children’s show on Cartoon Network?

In late 2013, Rebecca Sugar, former storyboard artist for the show that was single-handedly keeping Cartoon Network alive, “Adventure Time,” released her own show called “Steven Universe,” taking the audience on a magical journey through the daily life of Steven, the titular character.

Subverting the usual pattern of the magical girl show (“Sailor Moon,” for example), Steven is a boy with alien powers that emanate from the gem embedded in his bellybutton. As the son of Greg Universe (a human) and Rose Quartz (a Crystal Gem), Steven is half-human, half-alien. His mother died in childbirth, and so Steven was raised by his mother’s friends, Garnet, Pearl and Amethyst, to develop and unlock the secrets of his gem powers.

How Cartoon Network’s ‘Steven Universe’ Gets Diversity Right
Show creator Rebecca Sugar (Image via YouTube)

Although the premise of the show centers on alien powers and technology, most of the episodes can be more accurately described as slice-of-life scenarios that focus on relatable, real-life situations. What’s even better is the fact that the show centers around the diversity of the characters, the city and the challenges and joys that can arise from that.

We can begin with the main character’s living situation. The standard nuclear family has been traded in for three females living together, raising the child of their deceased friend. In addition, one of Steven’s caregivers, Pearl, had romantic feelings for Rose Quartz, even though Rose was in a romantic relationship, and consequently had a son, with Greg. Pearl’s feelings for Rose continue long after her passing, further straining the already-frail relationship she has with Steven’s father.

One of the most interesting parts of the show stems from the most powerful ability the Crystal Gems possess. The alien women can fuse with one another to increase their overall physical size and power (talk about #girlpower). However, the fusions rely heavily on the individuals’ relationships with one another—the stronger the relationship, the more powerful and more coherent the fusion.

For example, in Season 1, Episode 12, Pearl and Amethyst fuse to create Opal. Apart from the double set of arms, the fusion appears anatomically correct. Considering that the two have vastly different methods of performing tasks, them maintaining separate sets of arms makes perfect sense.

However, when Pearl and Rose Quartz fuse into Rainbow Quartz in Season 2, Episode 9, everything about the fusion is standard except the eyes, implying that the two Gems might not be focusing on the same thing (not exactly seeing “eye to eye”).

The previous, more harmonious fusions contrast with a later fusion between Jaspar and Lapis Lazuli, two aliens under orders to colonize Earth. Their resulting fusion, referred to as Malachite, looks more like an amalgamation than a fusion. With four eyes, six arms and two torsos, Malachite can barely function properly. Lapis Lazuli and Jasper actively fight one another from within Malachite’s body, trapping one another. The two gems are using the fusion for entirely different reasons: Lapis Lazuli wants to restrain Jasper to save her friends, while Jasper wants to keep feeling powerful at Lapis Lazuli’s expense. The appearance of their fusion perfectly embodies the abusive relationship the two shared.

Not even Steven is exempt from his share of relationship-based fusions. As a 14-year old boy (yes, he really is 14), Steven and his human girlfriend, Connie Maheswaran, are the quintessential cute couple. They play together, grow together and protect one another. Connie even goes so far as to learn sword fighting to protect her more passive beau.

The two end up becoming so close that they fuse into Stevonnie. The fusion is perfect, down to the eyes. The two are even so in sync that they become an effective fighting team, with Steven’s Crystal Gem shield and Connie’s sword-fighting skills. The fusion also raises a question for the younger viewers in the audience: Is Stevonnie a boy or a girl?

How Cartoon Network’s ‘Steven Universe’ Gets Diversity Right
Stevonnie (Image via CN)

Well, just like the other gem fusions are both the gems who fused, Stevonnie is both female and male. Masterful, yet subtle, Sugar addresses gender without making implying something overtly sexual. Stevonnie opens the floor for having conversations with children about gender, relationships and even sexual orientation.

Another notable aspect of “Steven Universe” is the fact that various races are represented. There are characters with varying skin tones, hair textures, even accents. The ethnicities referred to are more implied than explicit, but Sugar gets the point across. Even the main character himself looks a bit more exotic than the average, contemporary male protagonist. Many scenes in the show are reminiscent of ’90s cartoons, and serve as a welcome breath of fresh air.

“Steven Universe” is the perfect show for children growing up in an increasingly diverse world. In short, Rebecca Sugar has done what many cartoon show creators either cannot or are afraid to do; she has incorporated different types of diversity into one show. Sugar understands that diversity isn’t just about race, gender or sexual orientation alone. Only by combining various forms of diversity does a real world start taking shape.

Variety is why Steven’s universe seems so relatable; everyone looks different, sounds different and acts differently, because everyone is different. Right now, diversity is often depicted as alien or frightening. But “Steven Universe” proves that a little bit of alien isn’t so bad.

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