My little sister, Halie, and I are very close. She’s smarter than me, but I’m bigger than her, so everything balances out. At two-and-a-half years apart, we have enough distance between us to inhabit clear roles of oldest and youngest, even though in many ways we’re the same person: We have the same eyes, the same too-loud voice, the same off-balance humor.
A couple of years ago, Halie tried to get me into yet another weird show. I was reluctant, since the last thing she had tried to sell me on was a web comic about multidimensional trolls with no arms. But this show was different, she said. “Purple lesbians from space,” she said.
Just one episode. Maybe two. Couldn’t hurt.
The first episode of Steven Universe is fun and silly—and that’s about it. A chubby little boy with a big smile goes home to find three women beating up monsters. We learn that his name is Steven, the women are aliens called Gems, and they’re kind of his space-family. Oh, and all of them, including Steven, can pull weapons out of what seems to be a permanent form of body jewelry.
I was unimpressed. Sure, it was cool to see female action heroes, and I enjoyed little Steven with his starry eyes and roly-poly body—but it was a kids show, and I was beyond that. I was into real art, like Citizen Kane or Chrissy Teigen’s Twitter feed.
In the second episode, another space monster emergency sends Steven running to his dad, Greg, a schlub who lives in a van, in hopes that Greg is in possession of a powerful weapon that used to belong to Steven’s mother. As Steven goes spelunking through a storage locker, his father muses aloud about how he and Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, met years ago and fell deeply in love, spending all their time together, “until,” he says to Steven, “she gave up her physical form to bring you into the world.”
Curled up with Halie on the couch, I frowned. “Aw, that’s sad,” I think I said. Maybe I just grunted sympathetically. But as Halie tells it, that was the exact moment she knew I was lost.
* * *
Steven Universe is the musical space-child of Rebecca Sugar, who started developing the show while she was working as a writer and artist on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. Since its launch in 2013, the show and its unique blend of whimsy, humor, and emotional gut punches has attracted an incredibly wide range of viewers and much critical praise. In the world of Steven Universe, it’s unacceptable to talk down to anyone, child or adult. There’s betrayal, judgment, secrets, and nothing is solved easily, or sometimes at all: Feelings must be processed and action must be taken before a situation moves forward, and even then resolution is not guaranteed. When it comes to depicting the struggle of dealing with uncertainty and change, this show is basically The Sopranos with aliens and donuts.
But that’s an oversimplification, really, because what makes Steven Universe different is not easy to summarize. A quick glance at its viewer demographics is enough to confirm that Steven Universe is not only a “kids show”: According to a fan poll from 2015, the average viewer age is around 22, while the youngest is around 11 and the oldest around 50. Even more remarkable, 57.5 percent of viewers identify as male, which is unusual for a show dominated by female characters. Finally, more than half the people who watch Steven Universe identify as something other than heterosexual, an unusual distinction for a show pitched at younger viewers.
A quick glance at much of Steven Universe’s press reveals the reason for popularity in that last demographic: The show is famous for its frank and easy portrayal of queer sexualities, leaving other children’s shows and even most adult shows in its dust as it continuously pushes the boundaries of gay and queer representation.
One of the main characters, a gem named Pearl, has struggled with her unrequited love for Steven’s mother, Rose, since the beginning of the show; another main character (who I’ll leave unnamed to avoid spoilers) is literally a combination of two gems, both female, whose romantic love is so strong that they “fuse” together—in other words, their love becomes something bigger than themselves, something alive and breathing and always changing. There are other love stories on the show as well: teenage romance, children and their parents, the pain of living past the death of a partner, even the love of home. On Steven Universe, planets and people are threatened by those whose love they damaged, and protected by those whose love they earned.
But that’s not the whole story. This show is more than a refreshing take on queer representation, more than a mature look at being youthful. There is something about Steven Universe that keeps attracting viewers from across every board. There is something more to it than bright colors and fun songs and sharp writing. There is something about Steven Universe that is slow, deliberate, and horribly, terrifying brave.
I think that this something is different for everyone. Like all the best art, Steven Universe is simple enough to reveal complication everywhere. Creator Rebecca Sugar admits that this is intentional: “I want the show to be remembered for being personal,” she says, “and I hope it will be remembered differently by all the different people who cared about it for different reasons.”
Brother and sister Max and Molly Murray-Mutch, ages 15 and 12, have been watching the show together since it began. Molly says the show brought her and her friends together, since they were too shy to talk to people until they all realized they loved Steven Universe. As a young writer, Max enjoys the show’s world-building, saying “It will tell you something, but not expect you to understand completely.” The siblings started watching the show “because it had a character with big curly hair,” just like theirs.
It is unsurprising that brothers and sisters are so prone to watching the show together, since Sugar has said that the show is based on her own little brother, Steven Sugar. Not only is Sugar’s brother a model for the titular Steven Universe—a round little boy who loves fiercely, cries often, and plays the ukulele like a natural—but he also served as an inspiration for the show as a whole.
“The show is based on my relationship with my younger brother Steven, and each of the gems started out as some aspect of how we interact,” says Sugar. “Sometimes I'm neurotic and overprotective; sometimes I'm a slob and we just bum around; sometimes I actually manage to be cool and in control.” These different turns are personified in the Crystal Gems, Pearl, Amethyst, and Garnet, Steven’s alien family and protectors. But far from being stock guardian figures, these characters, along with Steven’s human father, Greg; his absent alien mother, Rose; and a growing cast of all species and temperaments, are all fully realized people. Different races, different sizes, different ages, complex and troubled and joyful, drawn together by their love for Steven—both the good and the bad of it.
On Steven Universe, love is beautiful and painful at the same time, just as it is in real life. I think at least part of that is a result of the show’s basis in a sibling relationship. I love my little sister, but we’re not friends, because we can’t be. I didn’t teach my friends to talk, I didn’t tell them stories while lying in our bunkbed after lights out, and I’ve never cut off about a third of a friend’s hair. I’m nice to my friends, and sometimes I’m terrible to my sister, just because I can be. Before our parents divorced, when we would lie in bed and hear them arguing downstairs, I would climb down from my bunk and sit at the top of the stairs like a gatekeeper, believing that I could somehow soak up the bad feelings and keep my little sister none the wiser. Whatever that weird combination of responsibility and resentment and furious devotion is, it’s not friendship. And whatever that is, it’s at the heart of Steven Universe.
“Beneath the sci-fi fantasy candy coating,” says Sugar, “every aspect of the show is very personal to me, and I approach this aspect as I approach all others: I try to always stay honest, and flexible, and work toward the best possible story at all times.” Steven Universe is about the most inconvenient kind of love, the drawn-out love that grows in the gaps between age and experience, the love that leads you to some of the hardest choices and worst struggles of your life. Steven and the Crystal Gems may go on crazy adventures, but the villains they face are driven by the same confusing and complicated feelings as the heroes, and sometimes winning isn’t a good thing. Like sisters and brothers, the characters of Steven Universe constantly expose each other to their happiness and pain, sharing their issues with willing and unwilling partners. Everyone struggles; everyone needs a hug.
That moment during the second episode when my sister said she knew I was hooked, is actually a hidden gem. (Sorry!) It’s subtle, swift, and deep in the storytelling core of the show, but it’s also pure and immensely valuable. Greg tells Steven that his mother gave up her own body to create her child—in essence, that she died so that he might live. When Greg says the words, there’s no crying. There’s no sad music, no heavy-handed platitudes directed at a young audience to inform them that this was a tragedy. Rose’s decision—not sacrifice, but decision—was one of love, which begat more love but brought with it loss and pain. In a world where birth comes from death and empathy makes every victory painful, there are not—and should not be—any happy endings. Or any endings at all.
When my sister was born, she changed everything about me: I would never be purely myself again because now she was steering the direction of my life. We lose parts of ourselves when we start to love someone, as though love burns the soul for fuel. In Steven Universe, love can even make people disappear entirely. But as Steven continues to learn, the choice to love again and again, to change over and over, is how we are eventually made whole.
You may be weird, you may be small, you may be a sentient alien mineral, but you are always a part of someone’s universe.
Steven Universe returns to the Cartoon Network on Monday night, May 8, with a brand-new Stevenbomb! (For the uninitiated, this means five episodes in five days! Oh, the riches.)