Steven Universe has won acclaim for its diverse, positive representations of gender and sexuality, but creator Rebecca Sugar told Polygon during New York Comic Con that it hasn’t always been easy to get Cartoon Network on board with those themes.
"There’s always a back and forth," Sugar said. "There have been fights. I try to be very emphatic about what I wanna do, and why I wanna do it, and I’ve been very lucky."
What Sugar wants to do — and has done — is create an inclusive world, where little Steven is flanked by a crew of powerful, female-presenting magical beings. Steven is raised by the personification of a queer relationship, and other characters openly discuss same-sex feelings; the show tackles Steven’s struggles with puberty in sensitive ways as well. Alongside its sweet, simple original tunes, Steven Universe’s progressive, emphatic presentation of these themes is what the cast and crew said is their favorite aspect of the show.
"When I was younger, I was very confused by a lot of my own feelings, and there weren’t necessarily people who could tell me what was going on," said Sugar, who came out as bisexual earlier this year, during Steven Universe’s San Diego Comic-Con panel. "I think I sort of escaped into cartoons, but I certainly never saw that reflection [of myself] in a way that was helpful to me, or in a way that was something that made sense."
"It’s normalizing these kinds of relationships, and I feel like these themes, I can actually use the show as a tool to teach [my son] about puberty and healthy relationships and toxic relationships," said Jennifer Paz, who voices Lapis Lazuli, a recent addition to Steven's gang of gems. "It’s a kids’ cartoon, but they’re tackling a lot of adult themes.
"It’s a very diverse show behind the scenes, and because of that, it’s attracting a very diverse audience."
That was evident during the show’s Comic Con panel, where a multicolored array of faces dotted both the crowd and the stage. There was just one man repping Steven Universe during the event; the rest were women, and it was a racially mixed group. People of various ethnicities could be seen rushing to the microphone during the Q&A session too.
"I feel a responsibility to myself as someone who can completely relate [to fans]"
Through heavy tears, many fans told the team on stage how much the show helped them learn to accept themselves. Characters like Pearl or Garnet, who both have feelings for other female-presenting gems, taught them that it’s okay to deviate from the heterosexual norm, they explained.
We asked Sugar if she felt any sense of responsibility to fans like these, who look to Steven Universe not just for laughs, but for a sense of belonging.
"I feel a responsibility to myself as someone who can completely relate to everyone in that room," she answered.
Her intention is to make the best show possible for everyone, not just boys age two to 11, Cartoon Network’s biggest ratings demographic. She’s largely succeeded, although she recognizes that putting a boy at the forefront still works to appease marketers.
Steven Universe is Cartoon Network’s biggest hit, as anyone who’s roamed the Comic Con floor can tell you. Still, the cable channel has been known to put the interests of gendered marketing companies before real, live fans in the past; superhero show Young Justice was reportedly axed because it attracted an older, mixed gender audience, more so than the coveted young boy group.
"All people are deserving of love — and [so are] wacky cartoon aliens"
"I think that the reason behind these very gendered cartoons isn’t necessarily that kids are demanding them, although that’s the idea, that this is what kids want," Sugar said. "Companies want to understand what they’re marketing and who they’re marketing to. It’s money that wants this, not people."
At its core, Steven Universe is a show about people, and learning to accept and love those people, no matter how different they may be. Steven is relentlessly positive and welcoming of everyone around him, and even its lighter, less plot-driven episodes keep that upbeat attitude at the forefront.
For fans, and for Sugar and her team, that’s what keeps the show so special.
"Just to see characters love each other and be these people, it’s sort of hard to describe how impactful it can be," she said. "To see someone like you be loved by someone else, to know that someone like you can be loved ... anyone can know that all people are deserving of love — and [so are] wacky cartoon aliens."
Correction: Jennifer Paz plays Lapis Lazuli, not Pearl as previously stated. The text above has been amended to reflect this.