Steven Universe, explained

If you could only know what we really are...

You've watched the internet explode in joy and tears every time Steven Universe comes on TV — but you're still not sure who Steven is, much less whether or not Universe is actually his last name. If you're the uninitiate, let us walk you through the ins and outs (with as few spoilers as possible) of Cartoon Network's biggest hit in years.

What is Steven Universe?

Steven Universe

Steven Universe is an all-ages animated series that airs intermittently on Cartoon Network. Episodes run at about 10 minutes long, and — depending on timeslot — are either aired alone or in half-hour blocks of two. It comes from the mind of animator Rebecca Sugar, making it the first Cartoon Network original series created by a woman.

Rebecca Sugar via Getty/Theo Wargo

Sugar is one of a busy generation of animators to have come out of Cartoon Network's epic Adventure Time series and gone on to craft their own successful, original projects — she shares that "origin story" with folks like Natasha Allegri (Bee & PuppyCat) and Patrick McHale (Over the Garden Wall). While on Adventure Time, Sugar took storyboarding duties — which, in Adventure Time production lingo, is synonymous with "writing duties" — on episodes like "It Came From the Nightosphere" and "Simon & Marcy," both of which were nominated for an Emmy. "Nightosphere" was actually her first storyboarding work on the series.

But she's probably best known to Adventure Time fans as the person behind some of the show's most enduring music, including "Fry Song," "I'm Just Your Problem," "Nuts/Remember You," and, of course, "Bacon Pancakes." And Sugar's keen musical talents are in full force in Steven Universe, even in the voice cast. British singer/songwriter Estelle plays a lead role in Steven Universe as the Crystal Gem known as Garnet, and the show has boasted cameos from the likes of Aimee Mann, Patti LuPone and Nicki Minaj. (Other names of note who play recurring roles in the series include Joel Hodgson as Mayor Dewey, Sinbad as Mr. Smiley, Brian Posehn as Sour Cream and Tom Scharpling as Greg Universe.)

But Steven Universe's cast has another thing that sets it apart from many kids' cartoons: It's overwhelmingly composed of actors of color. That's a rare choice for a children's show that is not primarily about racial themes — not to mention a show in which a large portion of the cast come in literally every color in the spectrum. And in animation, a medium where the actor's appearance can always be easily divorced from their character's, it's clearly a deliberate choice, too.

Who is Steven Universe about?

Steven Universe

Steven Universe is what happens when a generation who grew up watching Sailor Moon and other Magical Girl anime alongside standard Western Saturday morning fare grows up and becomes animators.

The show follows the adventures of a group of warriors known as the Crystal Gems as they fight to protect life on Earth from monsters and other threats. Our superheroic roster consists of Garnet the inscrutably cool team leader; Pearl, the voice of reason; Amethyst, the hothead; and our main character, the titular Steven Universe (yes, it is his last name), the bumbling kid sidekick and the only boy on the team.

It also follows the Crystal Gems' interactions with the citizens of their hometown, Beach City: Steven's failure to launch father Greg Universe; his sheltered, overachieving best friend (and maybe more, someday) Connie Maheswaran; Lars and Sadie, the employees at the local doughnut shop; and many more.

Nothing is simply what it seems at first glance in Steven Universe

Now, these are all simplistic descriptions of these characters — but they're also how the Crystal Gems, et al. appear upon first watch: as stock tropes from team action cartoons. Steven Universe is, in good part, about Steven growing up, and it's not afraid to start the series while he's still very much an excited, inexperienced kid.

But, since the beginning of the series, we've explored Steven's complicated relationship with his mother, the founder and former leader of the Crystal Gems, who "gave up her physical form to bring [Steven] into the world" (a line of dialogue that's casually tossed off in the second episode without so much as giving the viewer a chance to gasp). We've also watched him grow into his Crystal Gem powers, turning from the trainee team member who only gets to go on the easy missions to a fully fledged Crystal Gem. And we've watched him, the only known human/gem hybrid, learn how best to embody his role as the link between two cultures.

Steven Universe

We know the understandable reasons why Amethyst craves attention and approval, and acts out when she can't get it. We know that Pearl's worrying and need for order is an important part of what keeps the Crystal Gems together. We know that Garnet ... well, Garnet's still cool. We just know that she's even cooler than we originally thought.

Steven Universe

Nothing is simply what it seems at first glance in Steven Universe. Even episodes that start out with stock plots never finish that way, and the show subscribes heavily to the Adventure Time/Gravity Falls rising scale of world building and emotional complexity.

But where Adventure Time does its explosive plot events whenever it feels like, Steven Universe is clearly playing by plan. It is possible to look back at the series' second episode, "Laser Light Cannon," and find foreshadowing for events that took two seasons to become fully apparent to viewers.

What are those events? Westernized Magical Girl adventures are, after all, not everybody's cup of tea, nor does the phrase properly indicate the show's surprising depth, or even the majority of its subject matter. So if you're willing to hear some spoilers in order to find out whether you'd really be interested in the show, keep reading.

If not, click here to scroll past the spoilers to where we talk about Steven Universe's general themes.

Steven Universe

Steven refers to himself as "half magic" on his mother's side, but the series is actually rooted heavily in science fiction — in Steven Universe, sufficiently advanced technology really is indistinguishable from magic. The Crystal Gems are actually thousands-of-years-old rebels from an alien empire who turned from their conquering ways when their leader, Rose Quartz (Steven's mother, or, in some senses, his previous form) realized that the native life on Earth had inherent value greater than the planet's mineral core. It is implied that the war between the Crystal Gems and Homeworld took place during human prehistory or possibly even earlier, and that it significantly altered Earth's geography from the continental shapes we are familiar with.

While Gems always present in a way that humans would recognize as female and use female pronouns, they do not have sex or sexes. Gems aren't even strictly corporeal: their humanoid forms are actually projections emanating from the gem that forms the core of their physical being — giving them powerful regenerative and shapeshifting abilities. Most important of these is their ability to form Fusions, composite beings made up of two or more Gems — and thus proportionately larger. Every well-matched Fusion, we learn, is a concrete being with her own personality, identity and desires, who exists only when her component gems fuse.

Steven Universe
Amethyst and Pearl's fusion, Opal

In fact, in the climax of season one, Steven Universe reveals that Garnet is a fusion of two smaller Gems, Ruby and Sapphire, who care for each other so much that they choose to live as one being. Garnet is the physical embodiment of their relationship. To get metaphorical, it's also the moment that the show rips down the curtain labeled "Subtext" to reveal a mural of the word "TEXT" in large block print: Gems identify as female. Gems love. Gems have same-gender relationships. The leader of the Crystal Gems is literally a large, super strong lesbian made up of two smaller lesbians.

And Steven Universe presents this idea with a triumphant musical number — the series' first solo song for Estelle, Garnet's voice actress — that is also a fight scene and an escape sequence that takes place on a crashing alien ship.

Steven Universe
Ruby and Sapphire forming Garnet

The existence of Ruby and Sapphire isn't the episode's only reveal at the close of season one: The centuries of relative peace that the Crystal Gems have spent fighting the dregs of a Gem army, mutated into unrecognizable monsters, are over. Homeworld has had centuries to develop technologically since they last visited Earth — the Diamond Authority is coming to finish what it started.

And that's without addressing the human characters in Beach City, who are just as important to the development of the show's characters as its plot and setting reveals. But that's enough about the show's story. What's just as important in understanding what makes Steven Universe a hit is its themes.

What is Steven Universe about?

Steven Universe

Rebecca Sugar has said that her biggest inspiration for Steven Universe is her own childhood spent playing video games, watching cartoons and hanging out with her own brother, Steven (who, incidentally, designs backgrounds for the show). Above all, the Gems are a supportive and loving family, and it's easy to see the sibling archetypes in its main cast: Garnet as the ineffably cool older sibling, Pearl as the older child trying to mother the younger before they've really developed the maturity to do it, and Amethyst as the bigger kid who forgets their brother can't play as rough as they do.

But if the Crystal Gems are a family, they're one defined by an absence: the loss of Steven's mother, Rose Quartz. Multiple episodes in the series explore what losing Rose meant to each of the Gems, as well as Steven's struggle with the pressure to live up to the charismatic, powerful example that she set as a Crystal Gem — when he only knows her through what others have told him.

In fact, there's a lot of Steven Universe that is about grief, grieving and loss, in episodes like "Indirect Kiss," "Maximum Capacity," "Lion 3: Straight to Video" and "So Many Birthdays." So much so that we've got a whole article about it. But it's far from the show's only theme that you wouldn't expect in kids' TV.

Steven Universe is gleefully creepy when it wants to be, showing influences from stuff as far out of Cartoon Network prime time fare as Akira — in an episode in which Steven's efforts to learn shapeshifting result in him becoming a crawling mass of uncontrollably multiplying cat heads with minds of their own.

Steven Universe Cartoon Network

Among its other virtues, this is a show where an episode revolves around the main character accidentally creating an army of hostile, faceless watermelon boys. It's a show where one episode ends with a cute Beach Boys-type ditty with the final line "I learned to stay true to myself/by watching myself die."

And no discussion of Steven Universe would be complete without talking about its music, either its instrumental score — an inventively orchestrated slew of chiptune-inspired pieces from Aivi Tran and Steven "Surasshu" Velema — or its spontaneous musical numbers, or its scenes in which characters sing just because they brought their ukulele along so why not compose a song on the spot about giant warrior women. In fact, let's take a listen to "Giant Woman."

For extra credit, listen to "Let me Drive My Van Into Your Heart," Greg Universe's ode to falling in love with the giant warrior woman Rose Quartz, until you realize you can sing one song over the other's chords and vice versa.

Steven Universe uses music to advance major character arcs, to deftly display a character's internal emotions, and simply because a number of its core cast are musicians anyway. And as you may have noticed from the images in this post, the show is a treat to the eyes as well as the ears — it's a beautifully drawn, gorgeously animated series full of inventively designed characters and monsters. There's a reason why the fandom is full of "gemsonas" — people love imagining what they might look like if they were a Gem.

the malleability of gender definitions is the show's most subversive positive theme

But the show's strongest themes are about gender, identity and love — love between people of all genders. Identity in episodes like "Tiger Millionaire," which maintains that fandom and heroic roleplay have considerable value when you struggle to find acceptance in the rest of your life. Love, in episodes like "Keystone Motel," which is about how two people can get mad and spend a little time apart in order to resolve their disagreement, and that's normal and ok. Love doesn't mean perfection.

Steven Universe deftly packages all of these ideas in ways that are as nuanced as they are all-ages-appropriate, and it does it so well that it has to be watched to be believed. Sugar says her goal is for the show to be "subversive in a positive way." Perhaps the zenith of this idea comes in Season 2, where Steven Universe devotes an entire five-episode arc to the idea of consent. Soliciting intimacy from someone under false pretenses is wrong and hurtful, the arc establishes, even if it filled your emotional needs. And the show has devoted other episodes to "morals" like "Infatuation is not the same thing as love."

Or take "Alone Together" as an example. The core theme of that episode is that as you grow up and start to look like an adult, people may react to you in new ways. That attention can be confusing, and if it makes you uncomfortable you have the right to tell them to stop and get angry if they ignore you. They're wrong for making you uncomfortable, and you didn't do anything wrong to deserve their attention.

Steven Universe

But with Steven as a main character, the malleability of gender definitions is the show's most subversive positive theme. Steven is never made to feel insecure about being a boy in a feminine role — either as a Crystal Gem or as a kid whose magical powers are entirely defensive and manifest only in shades of pink. His dominant personality traits are affection, empathy, kindness — and they're established repeatedly as traits that make him an essential part of the Crystal Gems. Steven's kindness wins battles — his encouragement and empathy keeps them together as a team.

Steven is not only a character whose abilities are implied to be triggered by his maternal instincts — he's the vanishingly rare male hero who is trying to live up to his mother's formidable legacy, rather than his father's. He sings a whole catchy song about how he thinks seeing a giant, powerful woman be giant and powerful would be really cool, for crissakes. He's the toxic masculinity antidote.

"subversive in a positive way"

There is, of course, more depth here in regard to a lot of these themes — but not any that can be gotten into without spoilers for some of the show's most exciting moments. If you really want to see how well Steven Universe plays with ideas that no other all-ages Western animated show is playing with — certainly no other series that has reached its level of popularity — you'll have to check it out yourself.

If there's one episode I recommend starting with, it's "Tiger Millionaire." If it doesn't seem like your cup of tea, the show's probably not for you. But no matter where you start, the good news is that you have the whole series ahead of you to binge. After that, you can join the rest of in waiting for the next StevenBomb.