Flipping aimlessly through the never ending channels on TV, one might pass “Ben 10,” “Kim Possible,” or the “Fairly Oddparents.” Instantly, the viewer starts to reminiscence about Saturday mornings strewn across the sofa, mesmerized by the colorful adventures of our favorite cartoon characters.
Of course with age, just as we grow out of play dates or dressing up, child-orientated cartoons tend to be left behind in our early years. As we mature, so does our TV taste, leaning towards complex murder mysteries, revealing reality shows, and the occasional adult-animated comedy. With the ample options presented on the channel list, we fall into the Paradox of Choice, where making a decision of what to watch is even harder as the list drags on and on.
Recently, I found myself yearning for a new show to obsess over and binge relentlessly. I had fallen into a lull of watching what seemed like season 23 of shows that should have been gracefully ended ages ago. I sought a show that was original, subtly comedic, and socially aware. (I love some good old fashioned sly social commentary). My criteria checklist was completely filled out and exceeded by one show: “Steven Universe.”
“Steven Universe,” a program on Cartoon Network, centers around a young half-human, half alien-esque boy, who is born with a set of powers from his mother’s genetically passed down gemstone–inserted in his belly, Steven must learn to control these powers.
His mother was part of a gemstone group known as the Crystal Gems, whose female- depicted manifestations rebelled against their leaders to save the Planet Earth from destruction. Steven must replace his mother in this group, but the three Crystal Gems– Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl– act as the three mothers Steven never had.
This coming-of-age story set in fictional Beach City combines LGBTQ characters, strong female role models, aesthetically pleasing backdrops, and a killer soundtrack to make an absolutely stunning show. Rebecca Sugar, the creator of “Steven Universe” and first woman on Cartoon Network to have her own show, has broken the norms of TV and built a media platform with groundbreaking subject matter. In a time of cookie-cutter perfect families and cliché characters swarming the screen, the personalities of the SU world are simply refreshing.
Each character is of his or her own genre, each encompassing different human feelings and flaws. The three original Crystal Gems combine polar character traits to show human personality complexes and how they manage their emotions. Garnet, who is a gem fusion (formed when two or more gems fuse together to create another more powerful being) is the stoic mama bear of the group: protective, strong, and level-headed, yet still unafraid to show raw emotion at times. Amethyst is the crazed kamikaze teenage sister whose jocular antics are entertaining, but she knows when to step up and be mature in certain situations. Finally, Pearl is the ever-worrying guardian, an excellent teacher, who is a graceful warrior, fighting for the freedom and natural rights of others––gemstones and humans alike. Sometimes, she has to learn to let go and relax, which is a struggle for her.
With mentors like these aiding and encouraging Steven through his self-discovery as a gemstone, he is constantly assured in himself and his abilities, defying expectations of what he should be (a.k.a. living up to his mother’s legacy).
A lesson I pulled away from the trio is that being strong isn’t just about physical strength (which they all have), but rather being strong in character and ethics. “Steven Universe” tackles themes of sexuality, abusive relationships, gender roles and mish-mash families that are anything but nuclear. All of these issues seen in the show teach viewers, children and adults alike, about how to handle each situation, and to recognize right from wrongful actions.
Pearl is always trying to move on from her strong feelings for Steven’s late mother, Rose, and in doing so, interacts with new human women in an adorably naive way. Her experimentation with relationships helps her find herself and her sexuality while managing to keep her overwhelming feelings under control.
Real world situations are also evident when two or more gems fuse. This process parallels a relationship, as the gems must work together to successfully combine their personalities and strengths to form a new being. One gem must not take control and override the other, it must be a perfect balance of harmony and cooperation. One episode tackled an abusive relationship as seen with two gems: Jasper and Lapis Lazuli. Jasper is the more muscular and dominant of the two and Lapis is reserved and shy, but only due to Jasper’s tight reins on her, constantly demanding to fuse into their powerful form named Malachite. Lapis, with Steven’s help, manages to find her voice and stand up to Jasper about their unhealthy relationship and essentially, break up with her.
As for gender roles Steven’s best friend, a human named Connie, takes it upon herself to battle train to defend Steven in times of peril. Pearl takes Connie under her wing to teach her the art of sword fighting. With Pearl’s help, Steven’s unwavering support, and of course a catchy musical number, Connie swears to use her fighting skills to protect Steven at all costs, even if it means risking her life. Rather than seeing a typical prince saving a damsel in distress, we are presented with a young girl turning into an awesome, brave, sword-wielding warrior in case she needs to save her friend.
Aside from Steven’s own patchwork of a family, other families in the show are not the stereotypical ones that we are so accustomed to watching. The Pizza family, for instance, is composed of a father, two sisters, and their grandmother, and I have never seen so much love, passion, or funk in one group of people. It’s a reminder that a family, no matter how unconventional, is a family nonetheless.
The lessons, characters, and atmosphere Rebecca Sugar and the Cartoon Network have created in the world of “Steven Universe” make for animated brilliance. The warm feeling I get when watching the show was warm and bubbly, like eating a slice of apple pie or being embraced in a bear hug. Watching the show, you can tell the love, dedication, and hours put into it; it truly is a passion project, and certainly worth watching.